Where does a story begin? Did The Restless Hungarian begin in New York in 1996, when I sat down and interviewed my frail, eighty-two year old father about his life? Or after he died, in 1999, when my stepmother mailed me a huge box of his letters, personal papers and photographs? Or did it begin in 2013 when, through a weird synchronicity of events, when I worked as a volunteer carpenter on the restoration of a mid-century modern house that Paul Weidlinger designed?
Or did it begin on a bright spring morning in 2009, in the Berkeley hills, where I stumbled upon a strange tree? At that point I certainly had no idea that I would make a film and write a book about my father, but certain things shifted in life to make room for it. Recently I came across the piece that I wrote about what happened to me on that day in 2009, published in the Bay Area quarterly, Works and Conversations. It is a true story. Nothing is made up. Only names have been changed to respect the privacy of others. Here it is.
THE TREE OF THE ART OF THE MIND
For several months I had been anticipating a meeting with Dorothy, my benefactress, in which I would present a funding proposal for a new project. Dorothy’s family foundation has been supporting my work for nine years. I have made six films with her sole support – a wonderful circumstance, compared to my pre-benefactress decades when I spent as much time raising money for films as I did actually making them. Though I work hard and do my best to be worthy of this munificence, I sometimes feel guilty about my good fortune. But not so guilty as to prevent me from presenting the proposal for film number seven.
Usually I talk with Alex, the foundation director who is my de-facto boss, though he gives me complete freedom to make each film the way I want, once the topic is approved.
The last time I spoke with Dorothy was three years ago. Now, in her mid-eighties, she is almost deaf and increasingly erratic. Alex told me she had changed. He suggested that I write a proposal for a multi-year project. Once approved, it would not depend on Dorothy’s continued possession of her mental faculties. This, mostly likely, would be the final plum.
I was extremely anxious about this meeting. I am not ready to accept, quite yet, that this good thing could come to an end. I worry that I am too soft to go back to the nail-biting uncertainty of being a freelance, independent filmmaker. And the competition is so very young these days.
I was determined to get my idea for the new project across to Dorothy, despite her hearing difficulties. I brought my laptop to our meeting and typed on the screen in a very large letters:
IT’S IMPORTANT THAT YOU BE ABLE TO UNDERSTAND ME. WOULD IT HELP IF I TYPED WHAT I WAS SAYING?
Dorothy consented with a smile and a faint nod. I began typing and speaking very loudly and slowly at the same time, telling Dorothy about an award that one of our films had just won. She clapped her hands girlishly and said: “You are angels! I think you should all have halos!” Dorothy’s son chimed in and suggested he might find some at a local costume shop.
I continued typing, starting to describe my proposal for the new project. Suddenly Dorothy looked at me and asked, almost apologetically: “How much do you cost?” I was flustered. Was she asking me about the fee her foundation paid me or was she asking about the budget of the new project? I tried to make light of it, typing out that I was a bargain—the producer, director, writer and editor—all for one salary. “But how much do you cost?” she asked again.
I looked to Alex for guidance. He shrugged. So I launched into a rational for the cost of my proposed project. I didn’t get very far. Dorothy stopped me again. “Who are you?” she asked.
I typed: “I’m the guy who’s been making your films for the past nine years — the films funded by your foundation.”
“But what do you do?” Dorothy asked.
“Well,” I said, “I’m the filmmaker. I actually make the films.”
“Really?” Dorothy’s expression was half-quizzical, half-skeptical.
Both Alex and Dorothy’s son did their best to confirm that I was who I said I was. Gradually they realized that Dorothy thought I was a transcriber, hired to record the meeting. Recently she had been presented with an exorbitant bill for just such a transcriber and was none too pleased.
I was horrified to discover that the woman who had been responsible for making possible a good quarter of my life’s creative output no longer knew who I was. Yet, at the same time, I felt strangely calm – even amused. The absurdity of pegging my hopes for my future on her seemed suddenly, hilarious – like something out of a surreal play.
I thought, maybe, I’m in a state of shock. Imagine falling from a great height. You land. The wind is knocked out of you. You are feeling no pain, but you know that in a moment, when you try to move, pain will come flooding in. The only solution is to remain very still. This is what I did, literally and metaphorically. That night I sat in front of the TV until my wife finally told me to go to bed. In the morning I did not want to get out from under the covers. But eventually I did.
I thought I would find solace in nature. I picked up a sandwich at a deli and headed for the hills above the UC Berkeley campus where a network of fire-roads and trails wind up Strawberry Canyon. Lately I had been preparing for a summer trek in the Sierra by taking my weighted backpack with me. There is a steep stretch of trail, about a half a mile in, that I sometimes walk up and down several times. That day a work crew was weed-whacking the slope adjacent to it. To get away from the racket I just kept walking, going much farther up the trail and into the hills than I usually do.
I tried to keep my mind empty. Not to worry about what life might be like after Dorothy. I wasn’t very successful.
After about an hour I got to a ridge top that I’d never been on before. It was hot. I headed down the ridge, looking for a shady spot to eat my sandwich. I saw a large tree, standing alone, about one hundred yards off the edge of the trail. It had a great view: a vast swath of the East Bay stretching away to San Francisco with the Golden Gate in the distance. Not a bad place to be homeless, I thought.
I ate my sandwich and then looked up at the tree. For the first time I noticed what appeared to be bits of white rubbish scattered around its trunk and throughout its branches. Dismayed by this blight, I decided to collect the trash and put it in my pack.
When I moved closer to the tree I discovered that it wasn’t trash but bits of canvas crudely stretched over small rectangles of plywood, some as small as playing cards, some as large as a magazine.
As far as I could see there was nothing on the canvases except patches of black and grey mold. Whatever had once been painted on the surfaces had apparently been eradicated by sun, rain, and wind. Then I moved closer and picked up the smallest canvas, leaning against the base of the tree trunk. There was something on it after all. Typed in tiny and now faded currier letters was this inscription:
Welcome to the art of the mind.
What a pathetic excuse for conceptual art. Obviously the “artist” who left this here would never get noticed in the “real world” so he or she had to come here and litter the landscape with it.
I picked up another canvas, resting in the “y” between two branches. It read:
I was put together but then I fell apart.
Hmm, I thought. I know the feeling. I went on to the next mildewed board, resting sideways against a branch. It said:
Not everything will be ok.
This line was repeated, precisely, twenty-two times. Then the twenty-third line read:
But something will.
Yikes! Suddenly I was feeling a certain kinship, a connection with this anonymous artist. These words were speaking to me. I picked up the next canvas.
What are you doing with your freedom?
A shiver ran down my spine. What indeed?
There were several more canvases that were blank except for the marks of the
elements. But the last one I picked up read:
With Tao under heaven,
Stray horses fertilize the fields.
With Tao under heaven,
Warhorses are bred on the frontier.
There is no greater calamity
Than not knowing what is enough.
There is no greater fault
Than desire for success.
Knowing that enough is enough
Is always enough.
I walked away from the tree of the art of the mind feeling very different from when I sat under its shade to eat my sandwich. I no longer had to keep very still inside for fear that Fear itself would come rushing in.
Was it mere chance that just after one of the most dismaying things to happen to me in years, in which I felt my personal and creative sustenance to be gravely threatened, I should encounter a tree in the middle of nowhere that told me exactly what I needed to hear?
Was it mere coincidence that there happened to be weed-whackers on the slope that day? Was it mere coincidence that therefore, I would walk up a section of trail I’d never been on before? And what about the person who made those canvases? What moved that anonymous figure to create them and place them in that tree?
A friend suggested that I Google “Tree – Art of the Mind – Berkeley.” In the age of the Internet everything is knowable; is it not? But the search turned up nothing. No name. No hint of the person who put those canvases in the tree. The oracle of the web was silent. I found this comforting.
I am an agnostic. Even if I were a believer, I would think it the height of arrogance and hubris to assume that god orchestrated causality to teach me a lesson.
And yet I am left with the feeling that there is nothing mere about this experience.
I spoke about this with a wise old friend of mine who referred me to the work of Rabbi Abraham Heschel who wrote:
God is not always silent, and man is not always blind. In every man’s life there are moments when there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a sight of the eternal… But such experiences are rare events. To some people they are like shooting stars, passing and unremembered. In others they kindle a light that is never quenched.
I don’t understand what happened. For me, at the core, there is a mystery. If I clasp it too tightly I fear I will extinguish it’s light. Which is why I am telling you about it, blurting it out, writing it down. Maybe, in doing so, I can give it air to breath. The Rabbi concludes:
The remembrance of that experience and the loyalty to the response of that moment are the forces that sustain our faith. In this sense, faith is faithfulness, loyalty to an event, and loyalty to our response.
In retrospect, had I not been “given” my freedom and then been challenged to use it wisely by my encounter with the Tree of The Art of the Mind, it is possible that The Restless Hungarian would never have been born.