An excerpt from a new piece, "Personal Patch: A Halloween lesson in identity, c/o Linus and a cat girl." These words will also be in Saving Angles: Finding Meaning and Direction in Life's Unlikely Corners. I am writing at a high level. Yesterday I thought about how I might tell a friend, the terms I could use, what my estimate would be, for how different things are for me now as an artist than even nine months ago. The final quality is the same. It's always the same, that quality. It has been for a long, long time. But what transpires internally, the ease and rapidity with which I move there, create there, is far different than even a short time ago. I would say that I have improved 500%--and that is a real number I have given thought to--as an artist within that internal part of me, in this year alone. You're conscious of dealing in powers more than talent. Alas, this helps matters not at all right now--in worsens them, certainly, professionally, and with the awful feelings that come with creating work of this quality and having to remain in a prison while you create it, as you try everything you can think of and all but work your fingers to bloody nubs--and your soul to a kind of nub as well--to get out, to get free. But I think the above number is real. Here is a taste of this piece and book excerpt:
Beginning October 26, 1959, and continuing on as an annual tradition, Linus, the large-hearted believer who also suffered no fools—but carried this out with tact and grace—showed a side of himself, with no hesitation, no fear of scorn, no anticipation that someone might shame his faltering “boyness”—something that many boys guard in a fashion not wholly dissimilar to how their older counterparts cling to warped and life-limiting definitions of manliness. The difference being, the latter ought to know better.
When you’re a kid of Linus’s age, boys and girls are still largely separate; it’s like the law of the playground. It’s just going to go that way on schools across the land, probably always will. A boy can be loath to admit being poetic and dreamy, and it can be a hard thing (though it needn’t) to accept in this life that one can be poetic and dreamy and a badass offensive lineman on the football team. I was poetic and dreamy, and while not a football badass, a hockey one, certainly. I played baseball like Linus and thought he’d be a good dude to have a catch with, then you could do something else you couldn’t maybe do with your other guy friends, and get your dad to take you both to the ballet.
This was the first strip in which mention of the Great Pumpkin was made. In the opening frame, Linus is penning a letter. His sister, Lucy, as per usual, has arrived to dish out her latest serving of sibling teasing, Lucy being a master dispenser of this confection.
She asks her brother what he is doing, and Linus, not looking up—for he is busy with his task—responds, “Don’t you know?”
The smartest people ask questions that sound like statements that contain multiple possible statements at once. What are some of those statements for Linus?
You could know. Maybe you should know. You have your own version of your passions and I will show one of mine with you. You can get in on this, too. A lot of people would have just answered with a statement—“Eh, I’m writing a letter to a magical pumpkin, don’t bust my balls.”
Linus’s question brings Lucy into this particular mix, makes her an active participant, turns portraiture into diptych. That means connectivity. Even if she’s going to josh him. She’s a part of this now, dialogue attendee, and as such the accusatory intent she has winnows.
She is not so much speechless—which Lucy practically never is—as she is in a position where she will listen. Once involved, people listen. They have a personal stake now. It does not need to be the same stake you have, but it can end up being that, or more.
We spend so much time embroiled in judgment of others, and to do that, we need to create distance, to step further and further back until we are in isolation from what someone else thought, felt, actually meant—rather than what we wish they’d meant so we can lay claws upon them and tear.
It’s like doing post-shooting work on a movie. You’re doctoring the celluloid, cutting, grafting, editing, dubbing, to get the picture a way you wish it to look, sound, be. That’s not the same as bearing witness. Witness is borne in real-time, real reality. It’s being present, it’s being participatory as if one has a stake, because, due to connectivity, one does. Even if only for that moment? Yes, even if only for that moment. Life is phasic. The salubrious need for connectivity is not. The need is often not met, but it is there, and when we deny the need, or cannot summon the character or courage to abide it, we kick a lot of rocks in our own in the backyard, so to speak. Instead, we could just go inside and talk to our brother.
Linus pops up from his chair, and for the remaining three panels, he tells the tale of the Great Pumpkin, who rises out of the pumpkin patch bearing toys for those with the courage and fealty—the decision-making individuality—of belief. We all know Linus’s famous Biblical speech—sourced from the Gospel of Luke—at the end of 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas—but this very secular pumpkin patch—which is as earthy as you get—is the moment when he does what could be viewed as channeling Christ for atheists—or, for atheists as well.
By which I mean, you can hold no belief that there is a world beyond that of science, you may think all religion is bunk and hokum, or, worse, jiggery-pokery to brainwash masses, but if you read Christ’s words, as life doctrine, the lessons are invaluable—one might say saving, as in helping us live fully, rather than grandstanding through life, which is what we so often do now.
The Great Pumpkin rises. Linus uses the word again and again. (Consider the power of that verb and where you have encountered. Billie Holiday in “Summertime” saying that she is “going to rise up singin’”; Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.”) He uses it in the strips, he uses it in the 1966 TV special, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, a special whose title is a form of addressing someone and creating the diptych. What this Great Pumpkin is about is not toys on Hallow’s Eve or giving a holiday deity its due, maybe taking Santa Claus down a peg in the process, because why should he have a monopoly any more than Carnegie Steel or Amazon? What the Great Pumpkin is about is personal identity.
Spend some time on a dating app, or a social media site, and you will encounter tens of of thousands of profiles and barrages comprised of the same words. There is no variance in the bromides. On these profiles and with these barrages, people will cite their interests in shows, movies. It will always be the same two or three. There is a world out there, galaxies’ worth of a world, really, right on this world, but people seem intent to clone themselves and cut the very idea of identity out of human culture, when identity and its growth is whatever saving grace human culture has.
It is identity that helps us develop relationships, love fully, know and love ourselves. How many people do you know who have an interest that no one else has, or few people have? How many people do you know are, say, a Civil War buff? A ravening devourer of Golden Age detective fiction? An amateur herpetologist?
Or do they just say they like The Office and Netflix? Or they care so much about BLM and social justice when they had zero interest in these areas several years ago when no one spoke of these things? Do you think they say that and focus on that because that’s the best there is and it is really all anyone can need? Or is there a lot out there that they’d enjoy more, get more from, love to share with others, would twine with who they are and not merely what they think they should do because that’s the direction the pack has gone off in?
Probably the latter, right?
So why do we park our car in that one spot and never move it again? Or only do so when the parking lot is being converted into something else and now it is time to follow a long line of cars to another parking lot?
We are talking of Halloween, so it’s appropriate that part of the answer is fear. We quake so much over the idea that someone will term us different, not a full-fledged member of an enormous pack that is all seething mass and no delineated definition, that we will pare away—we will forgo—our birthright, our great human gift, of individuality, of maxing out on who we uniquely are.
Linus was not going to let that happen. The Great Pumpkin rises because it had need to, at least in terms of whatever Linus viewed this story as. The metaphor is that it is never too late to rise, it is never too late for identity. It is never too late for faith in one’s own identity and its resurrection.
Identities are a lot like Great Pumpkins that way. Linus is not ostracized. Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally, in fact, finds that her crush on him—pursuant the Great Pumpkin bit—deepens. Snoopy, a dog with much on his plate on a Halloween night—having to refight WWI aerial battles—shows up at the Pumpkin Patch to see what’s going on.
Even Lucy keeps an eye on the clock, and brings her shivering brother home after yet another year of maintaining his singular vigil. In all of the strips and animated specials, it is the warmest, most loving moment you see them have. I was pretty confident, as I read at the back of the classroom, poised to transition to thinking about what I might write the next day, that most kids would dig Linus the most, out of the Peanuts gang, and a great many adults, too. Not because this would be the thing to do, but rather resonance. He struck me as the kid you wanted to be more like, out in the open, because as you bore witness to him, you bore witness to things in yourself that jibed with Linus’s understanding of passion and being into what you thought were the coolest things with what Linus would call “great sincerity.”
That is the quality he believes, above all, the Great Pumpkin looks for when choosing a pumpkin patch to visit each year. He only visits the one. It’s an eco-mixed metaphor that works, this idea of a spot of ground possessing devotion and earnestness, because life is a series of incongruous metaphors, and this external patch is every bit as much an internal one. The rules of our internal, emotional grammar are different. That’s why Christ the spiritual figure can work best—or have the most utility—as Christ the secular being with earthly, rather than heavenly, lessons. Why a comic strip character can be more real than most real humans. Why a goodbye can be more powerful than a union. The Great Pumpkin isn’t even a Great Pumpkin; it is that which is unique to us, which we allow to reside in us and flower, which we also seek out. The Great Pumpkin in Linus’s yard is the Dragon with a Hoodie in mine, or the Elf King in yours. Or, sometimes, the friend who comes to visit us, whom we did not expect.
The Curse of the Cat People is the Linus version of a horror film. It was released in 1944, produced by Val Lewton, who had overseen 1942’s Cat People. These films were made for RKO, a studio which Orson Welles had pushed to the brink of financial ruin, thus triggering a rebranding. Whereas Welles had been about genius—or so read RKO’s press releases—the focus following his departure after Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, would be on showmanship. In other words, any yob out there could enjoy the upcoming movies, you didn’t have to be smart or arty at all, so come out and experience our product!
This was quite insulting to the audience (I would maintain that no group of people in American history has ever had their capabilities undersold and underestimated like that of any red-blooded, more-or-less attentive audience) and an artist like Lewton, but so it went.