Sunflower

This is not a post about inspirations. Also, it is not a post about nostalgia, artistic influences, where I get my ideas, or whether I spent my childhood watching movies I was way too young to be watching.

I’m not sure what it’s about, exactly. Maybe just those moments that seem to loom up out of nowhere to shape someone as an artist or a writer or as a person who thinks and breathes and dreams and lives in the world and grows up there.

I have this indelible memory of seeing Harold and Maude for the first time.

For those unfamiliar with it, Harold and Maude is a pretty weird movie. It came out in 1971 and was considered even more weird and subversive then than it is now. It is, by turns, extremely dark and kind of shockingly funny. Also, eight years old is probably a little young for this particular movie. (A lot young?)

But as with so many of my childhood obsessions, I did not care one tiny bit about whether or not it constituted age appropriate content.

I loved the craziness and the whimsy and all the fake death scenes, and the soundtrack (almost exclusively Cat Stevens), and wanted Harold to be my boyfriend because he was just so sweet and quirky and morbid, although I don’t think that word had actually entered my vocabulary yet.

I distinctly remember watching it in my grandmother’s basement, and being kind of ominously aware that if she knew what I was doing, she’d have a lot to say about it. We’d already had not one but TWO set-tos over a really terrible Twilight Zone-esque horror show called Friday the 13th (not to be confused with the film franchise), and I was not about to be sent out to play in the backyard simply because I was too young for this particular movie. (Also, I was totally too young for it.)

The scene that changed my entire eight-year-old world view was this:

I remember sitting in the scratchy red recliner, eating a frozen mini Snickers bar and having the smallest, most petrifying existential crisis, because the world was so big and awful and wonderful, and what in the hell was I ever going to do about it, because how is this kind of magnitude even possible and there’s no way the camera can pan back farther, no way that there will be more and then more, but the camera always panned father—it always could—because that’s how big the world is, that’s how many small white flowers there are.

Which, no matter how cruel and breathtaking it is, no matter how daunting, is still a hopeful thing.

And so maybe this is a post about inspiration, because this scene is not the only reason, but it’s probably the best, most comprehensive one for why I write the kind of stories I do. Because there’s beauty in the tension of opposites, and sometimes the uplifting parts really are displayed to best advantage when they’re braided together with the dark ones.

Do you have a thing like this—a book or a movie or a song that made you stop breathing? Have you ever seen Harold and Maude? Have you ever seen it for the 18th time and then driven to school with your sister, singing Cat Stevens songs the whole way down the hill? (That last one is probably very personally specific.)

19 thoughts on “Sunflower

    • Oh, I wanted that record so bad! But they didn’t have it at the used vinyl store (or maybe it was just expensive), so instead I got Footsteps in the Dark for like four bucks. My sister and I used to drag our terrible portable turntable into the kitchen and listen to it while we loaded the dishwasher.

  1. Wow, that is an amazing scene.

    I have a lot of things like that, because I tend to react to things in a huge way. It’s possible that I don’t remember the first time or the biggest time, because I do it so often and because I react so big.

    There’s a line in Chuck when Ellie finally yells at Dylan (who says “Awesome!” all the time), and tells him that when you call everything Awesome, nothing really is…and I profoundly disagree with that. I have so many “best and/or favourite things ever that I can’t even remember them all…but that doesn’t make them any less profound (and I hate it when people tell me that it does).

    But here is mine, anyway. The moment I really remember thinking “Holy shit, people!”

    I was in Scotland, on the Isle of Skye, and we were at a very small castle ruin that used to belong to the second son of the McDonald clan. He wanted to inherit his family lands, so he invited his brother to come visit, and also invited an assassin to come and poison his brother. He mixed up the letters, and when the older brother realized his intent, he (older brother) came anyway, and threw the younger brother in the gaol below the castle.

    You can still go into that cell, because it’s below ground and preserved. There’s a narrow window, so you can hear the waves and the gulls, and you can smell the sea. The younger brother was in there for three days without food or water, and then on the fourth day, his brother gave him a bowl of salted pork and a water jar. He at the pork. When he opened the water jar, it was empty, and the salt he’d just eaten had signed his death warrant: dehydration.

    He went mad, of course, and tried to get out. You can see, more, you can PUT YOUR FINGERS IN the marks he made on the stones near the prison, as he desperately tried to get out.

    I’d always known I liked old things, liked old stories. And seeing England and Scotland at long last when I was 16 (after waiting 11 years!), just made me know it for sure. But putting my fingers in those desperate scrapes…

    That was it.

    • I’m not usually one to get all visceral, but wow … that story is visceral. I’ve always tended to be less affected by things like adorable babies/puppies/kitties and majestic views, and more by majestic concepts made tangible, and THAT is a hell of a concept put into real-world terms. Also, I am deathly horrified of bad things happening to fingernails, so the fact that he left marks on the stone and you can touch them is just pretty breathtaking by itself.

      History was always one of my favorite subjects in school (right up there with psychology and English), and it actually really bothers me that my memory for historical dates and specifics isn’t that great, because I want to remember it ALL. I want to know every important or unusual or amazing thing that has ever, ever happened in the world, and I can barely know any of them, and then only superficially, and THEN I usually forget it somewhere along the way. And I will always, always know the lyrics to “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” until the day I die. What is up with that, brain?

  2. RAD post. I watched Harold and Maude when I was 12 – my mom rented it for me, knowing my obsessions with the quirky & morbid and her totally awesome record collection, which had plenty of Cat Stevens. I haven’t watched it in years, but I should – curious to see how my grown up self enjoys what my tween self adored. :)

    And my daughter is almost 8, so I can put it on and see her take on the movie, too. (JUST KIDDING. It cracks me up that you were 8 and secretly watched it in your grandma’s basement. Reminds me of when I was in kindergarten and convinced my grandma that The Watcher in the Woods and The Peanut Butter Solution were totally my favorite movies, even though they both scared the shizz out of me and gave me the CREEPIEST nightmares every time I watched them.)

    Also, I’m with EK Johnson when it comes to her comment: “I have a lot of things like that, because I tend to react to things in a huge way.” I remember secretly watching the movie Flatliners when I was about 9, and being terrified, in a thrilling way, by the idea of untimely deaths and the afterlife. I obsessed about both for years. Man, I can’t even imagine what the effect of seeing those McDonald clan finger scratches would be like. What an amazing, horrifying experience.

    • One of the things I love most about archaeology is touching things that other people have touched. Their tools, their floors, their jewelry, their cooking pots. And then you find a child burial, and you take a deep breath, and you do what you’ve been trained to do.

    • I’m just going to tell you right now, it totally holds up. I mean, it’s a little faded and blurry and all the bell bottom slacks are kind of hilarious, but writing like that doesn’t just go out of style.

      For the longest time, it was one of the six movies I owned. Which, when I left for college, made me not a very good movie-trader with the girls on my hall. (Mostly because the other ones were Taxi Driver, Grosse Pointe Blank and three different Tarantinos—hey, at least Harold and Maude was not a crime movie!) (But it still had guns.)

      Oh man, The Peanut Butter Solution! Now that was a weird one. And I think I saw The Watcher in the Woods when I was really little, at the library on a children’s movie afternoon, but I don’t really remember it. And yes, my mom and my grandmother were civilly-but-definitively opposed when it came to what I should be watching. When my mom was around, she totally prevailed. When she wasn’t, I would usually be sent outside on into the sunroom to draw pictures. Of sexy vampires, chest-burster aliens, and Godzilla-ish monsters knocking down buildings. Really, my grandmother could not win with me …

  3. Another fantastic post.

    For me, it was a poem by Seamus Heany called, Midterm Break. The second I read it, i felt so sad and yet, happy that I was sad…because there is a weird beauty to feeling sad. It was like having a key to happiness.

    We had to learn off the first four lines for homework. The next day, our teacher asked us to recite it, and not one pupil she asked was able to. So, we had to stand up, she was raging and was swearing we would get double homework if she couldn’t find anyone able to recite the first four lines.

    I was a smart kid, but I never bothered too much with homework. So, when the teacher came to me, my classmates thought I’d never get it.

    But I did, it rolled off my tounge. Not only was I able to say the first four, I recited the whole pome. I was very sincer when reciting, the pome was about death, and I knew about death.

    My classmates were shocked and my teacher? She nearly fainted. We all sat down, class went back to normal, we didn’t get double homework. But I was never ‘normal’ again. I had just witnessed the relief of poetry. And I fell in love with the written word.

    PS I ordered our books on amazon and they finally arrived; so happy!

    • For me, it was a poem by Seamus Heany called, Midterm Break.

      I have to say, that one is quite possibly seared into my soul. We had it for speech class in high school for some reason, and I just remember no one wanting to read it aloud, and all volunteering for the easy ones, because that one … wasn’t. (I can’t remember what happened then—I think the teacher probably gave up and read it herself.) I love that you just stood and recited it.

      (Yay for finally getting your books—I hope you like them!)

  4. Hmm, this is tough! The only thing I can think of that literally made me feel like everything in the world was different was reading The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh. But there are many, many things I’ve seen that have stuck with me, that sometimes pop up in my mind out of nowhere. The earliest one I can remember is the final scene of The Third Man (hope this embed works).

    • I had to look up The Pillowman, and it sounds amazing! (If quite dark.) And yeah, a lot of times I feel like I’m always forgetting the things I love the most, until suddenly they spring back into my head and then I remember exactly what it was about them and I have to go find them all over again.

      Since the Third Man scene didn’t embed, I just went and watched it, and yikes, that last long shot is just gorgeous—the long corridor and all the falling leaves … exquisite.

  5. I LOVE Harold and Maude!! I just got the Criterion Collection blu-ray of it so I can see it in its fully restored glory.

    I think I have a few moments like that from when I was young. My mom didn’t censor my viewing and so I was exposed to quite a lot of things I was far too young for. The one that always stuck with me, and made me understand that there are a lot of dark and unfair things in the world, and that sometimes people make choices that seem awful but are really sort of painfully heartbreakingly beautiful is The Elephant Man. When I was about 6, this movie was always on HBO, and I watched it every time, even though it was black and white and very sad. Anyway, the Elephant Man has a deformity that makes his face pretty hideous, and I think he ends up in like a circus or something on display and it’s really sad because he just wants to be normal like everyone else, fall in love, all that good stuff. He has to wear a bag over his head so as not to scare people. And because of his condition, he has to sleep sitting up or he’ll suffocate, and in the end, he’s so worn down and just tired of everything, that he decides to lay down to sleep, and (spoiler alert!) he dies. And I just remember the first time I saw him make that choice it blew my mind. I didn’t know anything about suicide, but I did get that his choice screwed the people who were profiting off of him out of money and also gave him peace and all of that just kind of rolled around – is still rolling around – my brain. It was the first time I ever learned that life, a WHOLE life, not just passing moments of it, could be unfair, and sometimes there is no neat tied up in a bow solution where everyone gets what they want and is happy. And I’m sure that informs the stories I write. I think there’s just as much beauty in the inevitable sad things in life, the moments that can’t work out no matter how much everyone wants them to, as there is in happy times and I love to explore that. I feel like those moments are, I don’t know, more real somehow. And now I’ve rambled, but there you go. I haven’t seen that movie since I was a kid. I need to dig it up and see what I think of it now. Did I mention it’s a true story?

    Also, this post and your bad dream post reminded me of how much I miss you. <3

    • Oh, I just saw that again a couple of years ago! It was on in the middle of the night when I was staying in a hotel room somewhere, and I was flipping through channels. And of course I love Anthony Hopkins, so I kept the channel where it was, and yes, it is just tragically sad. I can’t even imagine watching it at six, because I think the hopeful aspects probably would have been lost on me, since they’re largely (entirely?) implicit.

      It’s pretty crazy just to look at pictures of his skeleton, too. I have this tendency to imagine all skeletons as conforming to one general model, no matter how a person might look on the outside, and his just doesn’t, obviously.

      I think this is the kind of story that for curious, morbid, overly-thinky kids might actually take the place of things like Old Yeller, while serving the same function. I want to think more about this …

      (I miss you, too!)

      • It never occurred to me that his skeleton might be different either! I’m going to have to hunt down those pics.

        I have actually never seen Old Yeller… I can’t bear sad animal stories. Like at all. Which is kind of backwards, I know. I think the thing about The Elephant Man was that they handled his death with a sort of dignity. His suicide wasn’t treated as a *bad* thing. And that made me so fascinated. It was like, what is this movie trying to tell me about life?? because I was sure there had to be a point.

        Plus, I was born with the melancholy/bittersweet gene (seriously, I remember vividly being like 5 and 6 and thinking about how I had to memorize certain moments or things like what the sunlight looked like on my wall when I woke up on Saturdays because time goes so fast and soon I would be old and those moments would be lost forever!) and so that aspect of the story sort of resonated with me. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I first read your post. I had completely forgotten about that movie, but now I’m seeing how much of an impact it’s had on my life. The other movie I was obsessed with during that time period is Resurrection, about a woman who dies and comes back to life able to heal people but doesn’t believe it had anything to do with God, and then she falls in love with a religious guy and things go tragically wrong, (and also, the live stage version of the musical Camelot, lol, which now that I think about it, is also kind of bittersweet…)

        Anyhoo, I am going to have to watch these movies again and see what I think of them now. Fascinating post!

        • Oh, I hate sad animals stories too. In fact, I gave Maggie a stern talking to early on when she was drafting Scorpio Races, about how if she killed the cat, I would never ever forgive her. So, I actually have not seen Old Yeller either, but it happened to be fresh in my head, because D was speaking of it traumatically the other day. He really only remembers select things from his childhood (where as I remember All The Things, like down to birthday-cake flavors and socks I owned once and what Silly Putty tastes like), but oh god, he remembers Old Yeller. So it must be really bad.

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