I've been thinking about the color green.
Passive, gentle chlorophyll and the slimy excretions of toads. When I close my eyes and think of green, I see fields of fresh clover brighter than the sun above it. Alive and thriving. I also see my father on his deathbed, the sting of alcohol wipes, and the pungent and nasally green that hung in the bedroom those last few months.
The root of green, in over a dozen languages, means to grow. But in which direction do I grow? Up into the heavens, like fresh spring leaves? Or down into the dark, damp earth?
Green’s unique attribute is its spectrum. Up and down. Sickness and health. Life and death. It rubs against an unspeakable element of earthly existence. When the summer approaches, and the sun spreads its warm breath across the land, before the daffodils and the blue jays, we experience bursts of green. But in the shadows, where the sun cannot reach, mold overtakes felled trees and verdant decay spreads like a cancer.
Put another way, green has something to do with attention. Just like the sun, what I focus on will grow. What I turn away from will rot. Green is a paradox.
I’ve been interested in green for a long time. Red, blue, yellow — they make sense to me. Their stories seem obvious. Passion, sadness, joy, etc etc. But what the hell is up with green?
It was a mystery I didn’t know how to express. Until I watched The Green Knight.
The Green Knight: A Film Review, Sort of - Part 1
The movie opens with a young man, Gawain, in ancient Camelot. His life is not unlike many man-boys today, revelling in a dead-end lifestyle. He has few responsibilities and many lady friends to entertain him. His status in his society affords him above-average comforts. He’s, you know, doing fine. But there is also a dream itching at his back that keeps him from satisfaction: to be a Knight of the Round.
There is no modern comparison to King Arthur and his knights in today’s world. Imagine the first string '96 Chicago Bulls plus Seal Team Six plus the Mahatma. They were the apex of man’s potential in sport, war, and spirituality, unified under the promise of prosperity and goodness. A really big freakin’ deal.
On Gawain’s birthday, he’s invited to spend the evening with these men, in their domain. He isn’t one of them, but he desires more than anything to prove his worth. And then, mid-dinner, a mysterious figure knocks on the big creaky front door. Enter the Green Knight.
The creature is part man, part green, leafy and ageless. He enters court on the back of a black horse and wields an axe the size of a tree trunk. He asks the court if any among them want to play a game. “Try to land a blow against me,” he threatens. No one budges. Remember, these are men that have slayed ogres and trolls and dragons. Heroes, all. No one budges.
I love how understated this moment feels to watch. Like all truly great movies, on first viewing, you don’t understand its power. And neither does Gawain — the dude is clueless. He grabs King Arthur’s sword and jumps into the ring. He wants something so deeply it blinds him to all the little signs that point to tragedy: the veteran heroes cowering, the wizard in the corner shaking his head, the eerie stillness in the air.
In one swing Gawain decapitates the Green Knight. He wins. Game over.
Or is it?
The Green Knight lifts his head off the stone floor, stares at Gawain, and says, basically, “Well, good job. But this game has just started. Come find me in one year.” Then he rides off into the mist.
This story is old, really old. David Lowery, the writer director, adapted the 14th-century poem with unusual respect. Unlike a lot of writers, Lowery didn’t revise its foundations. The essence of the story remains intact, from beginning to end. It’s a modern film following a thread that goes back into the foggy realm of myth.
And… look. I’ll come right out and say it: The Green Knight is about promises. The promises we make, the promises we fight every day to keep, and more importantly, the promises that we fail to uphold.
A Green Aside Starring Shia LaBeouf
A few weeks ago while I was watching my daughter, I listened to a podcast on YouTube called Real Ones. The host, John Bernthal, is an actor with a gift for listening. The premise is uncut interviews with people that mean something to him or the communities around him.
He interviewed Shia LaBeouf a few months out of rehab. I consumed this bit of media entirely transfixed by Shia’s energy and seriousness. He was honest and raw — going so far as to call out the moments he was crying, “There’s a part of me that’s just thinking how others will react to me crying. My actor brain kicks in. I’m so fucked up.”
But what affected me the most was his promises. When he said he was done abusing alcohol, that his life moving forward was about making amends, I believed him. When he said he didn’t care about acting anymore and wanted to work at Home Depot, I believed him.
I believed him because it was clear he meant what he said. Like Gawain, he was stepping into the ring, ready to kill the Green Knight.
But, paradoxically, I also felt less hopeful. Sad, even. Because in my life I’ve made powerful, life-changing promises, too.
Three Years, Green Years
“I’ll never play another video game again,” I promised.
This was October 2018. My wife, Stacy, and I lived alone in a little west-facing apartment on the northern end of Toronto. In the cozy afternoons, the sun landed in our living room, warm and enormous.
My life was, you know, fine. I had everything I wanted. An incredible relationship. A comfortable apartment. A reasonable standard of living. But something was itching at my back. I wanted more than anything to be a writer.
DeLillo. Hemingway. Joyce. Plath. Johnson. Whitehead. I worshipped writers and had always wanted to be among them, at their table. My wife encouraged me to take time on the weekend to start pursuing that passion. Just 30 minutes on a Saturday. Go into the bedroom and write. Simple.
I remember the moment so clearly. Sitting at the table, opening a word document, and thirty minutes later, looking up to realize I wasn’t writing. I was playing Cuphead.
A gear in me clicked into place. It became so obvious: I couldn’t have both. I couldn’t continue this lifelong relationship with video games and be a famous writer. Sacrifice was needed. I got up, walked into the living room, the sunlight blazing from above the tree line, and said, “I’ll never play another video game again.”
And I didn’t. For over three years I didn’t touch a controller. I sold my Playstation 4 and Nintendo Switch. I didn’t read a single IGN article. I didn’t step foot into the Xbox aisle at Walmart. Instead, I wrote short stories and poems and even a manuscript.
The decision changed my work life, too. I quit my construction job and became a copywriter. At first, a man from India paid $.03 a word to ghostwrite Amazon affiliate review articles, like this one. Eventually, I landed a salaried position and paid my mortgage (just barely) with words, something I never imagined possible.
I made a promise and I grew and my life changed.
The Green Knight: A Film Review, Soft of - Part 2
“Come find me one year hence,” said the Green Knight.
A year later, Gawain packs a bag and heads off into the lands of myth. Oh, he has adventures. He meets giants and mysterious women and a lonely wraith waylaid in a forgotten bog.
Each encounter ends with the question: Why go ahead? Doom is all you’ll find at the end of this journey. Just forget about the game and stay here instead. Gawain considers the offer and, time after time, continues forward.
At the end of the film, he finds the Green Knight in a lush, vine-entangled hollow at the very edge of the world. The conclusion to the creature’s game is simple - tit for tat. Place your head on this chopping block and my axe will do the rest.
Gawain tries to abide by the rules that seem to be not just unfair but preposterous. At the last second, however, our young hero dodges the axe and escapes the hollow. The montage that follows traces the rest of his life.
He returns to the kingdom, heralded for defeating the Green Knight. He becomes king, awarded the crown from King Arthur himself. He marries and rules the known world. But over the years, disdain and disorder spread like a cancer, rotting the countryside. Finally, the people revolt, break down the big creaky door and chop off the head of Gawain the King.
Green, the Paradox
Without video games in my life, I made tremendous progress. I developed a skill that has blossomed into a satisfying career. I’m writing One Word, which I would never have been capable of creating.
But somewhere in my fourth year, a truth crept in: I realized I’m not Hemingway. I’m not DeLillo. The life of a novelist is not my life. And I ran out of energy to keep up the promise I made to myself. Then, in January 2022, I bought an Xbox and started playing video games again.
Time after time in my life, I’ve come back to this relationship with games. I’ve played them since I was a toddler. It’s something I’ve hidden from people. I’ve lied about them, as if games were a drug or toxic addiction. I’ve always seen it as a flaw in my character, this dent in my armor. A waste of time. Maybe it is. The thing is, after all these years, I still don’t know.
When I watched Shia LaBeouf talk about his new life, I saw a version of myself that promised to never play video games again, those three years of hope and experience. A version of myself that has since passed away. And I thought about The Green Knight.
Because the movie doesn’t end with Gawain’s head lopped off by the mob. We get one final scene. We’re back in the hollow at the edge of the world. The Green Knight asks Gawain to place his head on the chopping block, and this time, he lets the axe come down. Cut to black.
The Gawain that keeps his head on the block is a different person. He followed through with the game, and his fate isn’t what he expected it to be. He doesn’t become King, doesn’t join the Knights of the Round. His path is unknown. We don’t get to see it.
I wish I was the person who could have sworn off video games my whole life, but I’m not. I would have loved to be a novelist. But I’m not. So I must cut down that version of myself, and move forward, unsure of where the path leads.
What is a promise? It’s green, a paradox. When you make a promise, the sun shines brightly; you grow because of the promises you uphold. But if you don’t admit when the vow has been broken, a promise rots and festers.
I made a promise that it turns out I could not keep. The experience has changed my life and made me more aware of the nature of promises.
If promises are truly green things, forged with attention and made to help us grow, then we become different people because of their power. If promises are green, then they must be tended, trimmed, and, yes, cut. Which is to say, we make some promises in order to one day break them.