23 January 2010
Probably no cinematic scene is more emblazoned in my consciousness than the one that ends Le Quatre Cents Coups, a.k.a. The 400 Blows. Antoine Doinel, a boy of about twelve years old, lives in a dysfunctional home (to put it mildly!) and spirals downward from schoolboy mischief to petty crime in the neighborhood near Le Moulin Rouge. At various points in the film, he says he wants to see the ocean. After he is arrested, his mother asks whether he could be sent to a seaside reform school. Of course, the truant officer is none too willing to oblige; he says something to the effect that he wasn't running a resort.
Anyway, he's sent to a kind of military school where, during a football game, he escapes and keeps on running until he reaches the sea. When his feet touch the water, he turns his head and his face fills with an expression that has probably been interpreted in more ways than any other facial expression save for the Mona Lisa's. It's a combination of relief, release, conquest and a sense of what Yeats meant by "a terrible beauty is born."
Now, I'm not sure that whatever expression I wore today on the Coney Island Pier is nearly as enigmatic or interesting as Antoine's. But I'm sure I must have shown some of the sense of release--I could feel it--and what I like to call a sense of Zen ecstasy. And, of course, I've been to the ocean many times before. But this is the first time I've ridden my bike there in more than six months.
It was cold, but not terribly so, and there was no wind or precipitation. And the almost pristinely clear sky was almost too bright for reflections: The sun and the clear sky actually seemed to light the water from within, so that the waves flickered like nearly translucent lapis lazuli flames. Even though the air was chilly and the water, I'm sure, was very cold, I felt those colors and the refulgence of the sun glowing within me.
A new life, or a new stage in one's life, is often referred to as a new (and distant) shore. I wonder whether anyone ever thinks about reaching a familiar shore in a new life. Actually, I think that's part of what Zen teaches.
I'm thinking now about a day very early in my life as Justine. I rode my bike to the Coney Island boardwalk, as I did today. And I had a flashback to myself on a beach one Sunday in October during my senior year of high school. It amazes me now that more kids don't run away from home or do even more reckless things at that time in their lives: The pressure of expectations is so great even for a kid who's not struggling with his or her gender identity or sexuality. That tug-of-war between what parents, teachers and other adults want a kid to do and what that kid might actually want to do exacerbates, and is exacerbated by, the tension between the sort of person the kid wants to be, or realizes he or she is, and what the parents and other adults hope for. In my case, it meant that I would apply to West Point and Annapolis because my father and some other adults in my life wanted me to become a military officer. I think women were admitted to those academies the year after I applied to them, and at that time, the number of female officers was probably smaller than the number of male women's studies professors. So, of course, being a military officer would mean living very much as a man.
Anyway, on that long-ago day, I could only see more of the same struggles. In other words, I was seeing what I now call the Eternal Present: Everything ahead of you is just another version of what's in front of you. So, while I could apply to colleges and make plans to prepare myself to become an officer or a doctor or whatever, I simply could not envision the person who would be whatever I was supposed to become at the end of that training. What others dreamt for me was invariably predicated on my becoming a man, or at least their idea of what a man is. And, of course, that is exactly what I couldn't be even if I'd wanted to.
So today's bike ride brought me back to a place where I'd struggled, and first began to reconcile with that battle. In other words, it brought me to a familiar shore in a new life. At least now I can hope the familiarity is a blessing, or at least an advantage. If nothing else, it made me happy, if tired.