That Is No Country For Old Men

nocountry
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
(W.B. Yeats, “Sailing To Byzantium”)

One of the great joys of marriage so far has been that of having a companion who consistently spices up my life with his inconsistent schemes, plans, and ideas for new adventures. Whereas I tend to become a little hum-drum and driven by routine, Alex is always coming up with new things to try.

Lately, he’s been working a delivery job most of the day while I’m at home pouring my heart and soul into custom calligraphy projects and new designs for my Etsy shop. It’s a big change from a few months ago when we were at university together, taking most of the same classes and spending the days listening to English lectures together or writing papers side by side.

Thankfully, Alex found a way for us to go on learning together even in this strange transitional stage of our lives. We’ve started listening to audiobooks on Audible and Librivox while he’s doing deliveries and I’m doing calligraphy. So far we’ve knocked out O Pioneers, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Children of Hurin, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Wizard of Oz, The Sword in the Stone, Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and No Country For Old Men. It is on this subject that I mean to say a few words, as we’ve been thinking and talking for some time about Cormac McCarthy’s neo-Western noir masterpiece and its Academy Award-winning film.

For me, No Country For Old Men was one of those works that carries its central thematic thread so deep inside that at times the soul of the story seems undiscoverable. Is it a story about fate? The senseless nature of violence? The changing landscape of crime? The far-reaching implications of the drug wars? The new face of the American Southwest? The end of the archetypal cowboy hero?

Or is it much, much bigger than that?

I think we can take a hint from the poem to which McCarthy owes his title: an enigmatic, lyrical piece written by Ireland’s W.B. Yeats and with imagery centered in the ancient Greek city of Byzantium (what is now modern-day Istanbul). This is not cowboy poetry, and what McCarthy has to say is a lot bigger than cowboys. That being said, I think the cowboy is still key.

So who are the cowboys in No Country? It’s obvious, of course, that the kindly and old-fashioned Sheriff Bell is one of them. However, although he is much younger than Bell, Llewelyn Moss may be one of the most important cowboys in the story and although it took me awhile to recognize it, I think Moss might be a quintessential “old man,” in the sense of the story’s title.

llewelynmossMoss is a Vietnam vet in his mid-thirties, and a wannabe cowboy hero. He seems to see himself as a sort of crusading bad-ass lone ranger, a John Wayne character in the flesh. Even his name lends credence to this reading: “Llewelyn” is rooted in old Welsh and “moss” is reminiscent of a forest full of history and years. Moss seems convinced that his skills and intelligence, coupled with the justice of his cause, will ultimately triumph. Although he experiences fear and consternation, he is never so overcome by these things as to reach out to law enforcement for help. He thinks he’s a cowboy boss-man: tough, gritty, brave, brusque, resourceful, authoritative, a man of action and command, capable of violence and extreme steps, but just and righteous.

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

However, in what I think it is the central element of the story, McCarthy will not allow Llewelyn to be the hero he thinks he is. Llewelyn, he wants us to know, is deluded in thinking he is the hero of the story. On the contrary, his self-sufficient arrogance brings death and sorrow to everyone he encounters, from his wife and her mother to the teenage runaway girl he is mentoring and “protecting” with a cynical, detached air when she is brutally killed along with him in the motel.

In every possible way, McCarthy is undermining and overturning the archetype of the cowboy hero that Llewelyn aspires to be. In what is perhaps one of the most significant story-telling decisions he makes, McCarthy chooses to have Llewelyn killed off-screen. He does not even dignify the cowboy hero with a heroic final stand. Llewelyn thinks he is the hero, but in the end, he is merely insignificant collateral damage in a war much bigger than him, and his stubborn insistence on getting involved in that conflict makes him the agent of destruction to his own family.

So what is the significance of how McCarthy treats Moss’ character? I think the answer lies in his foil: Sheriff Bell. The other “old man.”

While Bell is also a cowboy and an old-fashioned man of action, what sets him apart from Moss is his humility. Unlike Moss, Bell doesn’t see himself as the hero of the story, and he is full of misgivings about his own adequacy for the position he’s placed in and his ability to tackle the challenges posed by the brutal drug wars intensifying in the southwest. In the end, Bell makes responsible choices for himself and his wife, and avoids the pitfalls of bravado and arrogance that prove the ruin of Llewelyn.

So how does all this fit in with Yeats? It’s a question I’ve been puzzling over for weeks now, and I’m still uncertain about which interpretation to pursue, but I have a few thoughts on the subject.

I think it’s very tempting to assume that the Yeats’ tie-in is a reference to the fact that Sheriff Bell sees the new Southwest (and, by extension, perhaps the whole world) as an unfit place for the wise and for those committed to traditional ideals of justice, righteousness and sanity. Just like Yeats, Bell finds himself lost in the morass of modernity. You could even make the argument that Bell sees earth itself as unfit for good men. Unlike Llewelyn, he recognizes that the earth is not a place where the just are necessarily rewarded, not a place where good men always triumph. Perhaps, like Yeats, he is hungry for “the artifice of eternity.”

However, I wonder if this interpretation is not a bit too easy, a bit too surface-level. Also, it hardly suffices to explain Llewelyn’s prominence in the story and the decisions made by both McCarthy and the Coen Brothers to consistently reverse our expectations for his character. To me, Llewelyn’s character prevents us from interpreting the theme of this story as a direct adaptation of Yeats’ idea. Rather, I wonder if we’re being challenged to challenge Yeats’ own take on the old men.

sailing to byzantium.pngIs there something harmful in self-identifying as part of a wise and righteous minority? Perhaps not necessarily. But I think Llewelyn’s character points to the imminent danger of hubris and destructive arrogance that so often accompanies the determination to be an old-fashioned hero. And, what may be more to the point, he is a living (well, OK, not living anymore) warning against the oh-so easy assumption that we’re always on the right side simply because we understand our own motives and fail to understand the motives of others. Maybe McCarthy is suggesting that there is an inherent danger in Yeats’ own self-congratulatory statement.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions. What do you see as the central theme of No Country For Old Men? (the film or the novel) How do you reconcile it with “Sailing To Byzantium”? What do you see as the significance of Bell and Llewelyn’s characters? Is there any country for old men? Who are the old men?

The Long Defeat

20180828_124002 (2)“For the Lord of the Galadhrim is accounted the wisest of the Elves of Middle-Earth, and a giver of gifts beyond the power of kings. He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted; for ere the fall of Nargothrond or Gondolin I passed over the mountains, and together through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”

    [Galadriel,
          The Fellowship of the Ring]

My husband and I have been reading The Lord of the Rings out loud to each other since we got married back in May. I haven’t read the books since my sister and I took turns reading them to my little brother back in 2013, and I made my first serious Tolkien art project: this set of illustrations to go with Pippin’s Song.

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I remember I sunk a solid 120 hours into these and was soooo happy with them when they were finished, although I can now see a host of little flaws in them that completely evaded my untrained eye in 2013. This time around, I’ve taken the opportunity to do another project, albeit on a smaller scale than the interminable Pippin’s Song. I’ve wanted to make this one for quite some time, and although it’s far from perfect, when I finished it earlier this month, I decided immediately that it was my favorite thing I’ve ever made, primarily because of my deep love for the subject matter. (Although the silver ink accents that catch the light like dewy gossamer certainly could be a part of it).

When I first noticed this passage in which Galadriel tells Frodo that she and Celeborn have been fighting the long defeat through the ages of the world, I was struck by the haunting beauty of the phrase, but found myself wanting to know more about what Tolkien intended by putting this statement in the mouth of this wise and oh-so experienced Elven queen.

20180828_125254 (2)My curiosity was satisfied when I read The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, published in 2000. “I am a Christian,” Tolkien wrote in one of his letters, “…so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

There is something immensely empowering and courage-giving in this image Tolkien has given us: this picture of a great and gracious royal couple persisting in their quiet, relentless resistance of the ever-encircling darkness. This is one hardcore power couple. And perhaps they serve as a shadow of what we also have it in our power to be — all we who are looking for a better country.

[NOTE: As of just a few minutes ago, 8×10 fine art prints of this piece are now available in my Etsy shop. Each print is hand-tipped with silver ink and shimmers just as gloriously as the original painting.]

Furnace Backstory

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[This week I’ve been covered up with custom calligraphy orders, including one extensive project where I get to do traditional calligraphy and illuminated letters, which makes me excited every time I think about it! I’ll post some pictures a little further on in the process. In the meantime, I thought I’d share a fairly recent poem. This one was awarded the first-place prize in the 2018 Utmost Christian Writers Contest back in April and was first published as part of that contest.]

FURNACE BACKSTORY

Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold.
He set it up on the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon.
Tenderly the king took the bread from the mouths of the children,
tended to his own likeness like a hen broods over
the chicks under her heartbeat.

The king was consumed with his significant self;
he dwelt at the mirror and spun his sonnets there,
and into his circle of devotion he took the whole world.
All the world is pouring out into Dura
like threads of ants to a crisped cricket on the black leaves.

Isn’t a crowd like a large beast looking for something to kneel to?
Their eyes are hungry for divinity, their ears are cups
to catch the fifes, the tubas, and the big kettledrum.
Point but a finger and you fell them:
There in the soft gold is your god!

Once upon a time we believed in a sea-splitter, a bush-flame,
a harvest of water from cliff,
snowflakes of honey flowering in the fields.
The I Am spun out the novas like tops –
who is this housebound heap of mute metal?

The born-abroad boys have their hands up already,
ready to host handcuffs and the looped iron.
Their laughter is like all the bluebells that jubilate the meadows.
They are like three men who met death on a whim
and struck up a downright neighborly acquaintance with her.

Copyright ©2018 Bryana Johnson Beaird

Thoughts on Faith and Egrets

Great Egrets Landing in Shallow Water

“…unruffled, sure, 
by the laws
of their faith not logic, 
they opened their wings
softly and stepped
over every dark thing.”
         (Mary Oliver, EGRETS

 

My husband and I have both been ill this week, with our throats too scratchy and hoarse to even read The Fellowship of the Ring out loud to each other before bed, as has been our usual routine. So last night I picked up Mary Oliver’s American Primitive, which was given to me as a gift by a dear friend from Dr. Bob Fink’s Creative Writing workshop. And in one particular poem, I found words to accompany the current season of my life and the newest Great Secret I’ve discovered.

As is usually the case, it was right there in plain sight.

Over the past few years, I’ve experienced a lot of heartache and disappointment. I’ve seen the crumbling and the ruin of people, places, and things that I’ve loved with reckless abandon. And the reckless abandon part of me has been all but swallowed up.

I’ll be quite open with you. Last semester, I came through a massive crisis of faith. The years of disappointment and loss came to a head and I found myself unable to place any confidence in the goodness of God. A mentor met me for lunch at Jason’s Deli and I cried through most of our meeting, unconcerned about who might see.

But time passed and the throes of doubt and anger dissipated. Even though I wasn’t getting along with God, I was dead-set on holding on to him. Like Peter said —

—Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

His words became like the theme of my life. And I was sad that the fire had gone out, but I was not shocked. I had read so many warnings about this from the Aristocracy of the Kingdom of Heaven. Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, George Mueller, C.S. Lewis, Oswald Chambers, Abraham, Moses – they all fought this darkness, this blank space. I knew it wasn’t new to me; there wasn’t room for self-pity.

I would just keep going. I would just keep doing the things. I would not worry about whether I felt anything. I would just do it.

But loving Jesus, it’s not a Nike thing. It’s not a thing like Shia LeBeouf yelling at the camera and pumping his arms like a gorilla (I know, why does that video exist?). It’s not like that.

That’s what I learned in Tijuana. Alex and I were part of a group that went down to Baja 143earlier this month. We built a church and a home (well, we hammered a few hundred nails, at least, and slung lime green paint on the boards, our construction skills being minimal). In the park a little boy sat down next to us while we ate our lunch one afternoon and he spoke to us in Spanish and we painstakingly constructed and fumbled through clumsy questions and answers for him. And mostly we just sat together, us and the little boy from a lonely village in the desert, not saying anything.

But what was most beautiful about the trip was all the stories people told and passed on. On the bus, on the street, in meetings after dinner and breakfast in the frigid breeze blowing off the ocean, people told their stories of staggering grace. Their stories of change, and transformation, and hope deferred but nevertheless arriving. Their stories of faith.

And I learned something: faith isn’t only an action word. It isn’t only about what we do. It is also a climate of the mind. It is a determination to believe, come what may, in the coming of the promise. It is a rejoicing. It is a feast. It is a banquet in honor of things that are not. And when we’re holding that banquet, there’s no need to feel foolish, for at the head of the table sits God — who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.

2017 Christmas Cards

20170916_182813 (2)I have to say it. I’m a strong opponent of premature Christmas decorations and celebrations. In fact, if I go into a grocery store or department store in October and seeing tinsel and lights and elves, I try to ignore them completely, since I feel like these things spoil the grandeur of the way the Christmas season ought to spring upon us, much-awaited, with the beginning of December.

That being the case, I long debated whether to make this post at all, but I ended up deciding that it might be worth it to some people. So if you’re like me and cringe when you see Christmas things out too soon, don’t worry – I’ll keep this short.

20170916_182413Ever since I opened my Etsy shop two years ago, I’ve dreamed about designing a set of watercolor and calligraphy Christmas cards. This year, I finally had an opportunity to make that dream a reality and I spent part of the summer working on these new paintings and calligraphy pieces. I then turned this original artwork into printed cards that can be used as traditional Christmas cards or framed to be gifted or displayed as unique works of art.

And these new cards are available in my Etsy shop NOW.

So many of my favorite things about Christmas are classic and old – like the rich and beautiful carols and poems celebrating the advent of Christ. My other favorite thing about Christmas is the spirit of generosity and grace that we celebrate and attempt to extend to others during the season. This Christmas, I wanted to make art that would express both of these things and for this reason, 50% of net proceeds from any Christmas card purchases from my Etsy shop will benefit the work of Compassion International, a humanitarian aid organization serving children in poverty around the globe.

20170916_181840 (2)Although it’s only the beginning of November, I wanted to let you know about this now so that you have plenty of time to order them. Please note that these cards can be ordered in any combination you like! There is a listing in the shop for a set of three, and also individual listings. However, if you find you really like two of the designs and don’t care much for the third, you can order as many of these two cards as you like. If you send a custom order request, I can create a listing for you that will include your entire purchase in one listing and will cut down on your shipping costs. I usually respond to convos very promptly and you shouldn’t have to wait long for me to create the listing for you.

Alright, friends, that’s all. You can return to your normal routine and wait for Christmas to come at its proper time.