Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Cold Feet and Living the Dream

Every once in a while I get it.

The chatter subsides enough to appreciate the surprise of being alive and wrapped in a thin layer of living tissue that we call skin. It's quite a shock to imagine how it is that the atoms work together to conduct electricity, to adjust chemistry in order to keep us moving, respiring, digesting, shedding, and regenerating. I see the miracle of it, and feel wonder. The wonder is heightened by the fact that this body, this process, this awareness, all if it, is temporary.

In these moments, I know that I only have one chance to work this life into something right, something meaningful, something that will make it easier to let go when the time comes.

Dang, I say.

Of course, that clarity passes, and the scramble to make a living resumes. Somehow it becomes possible to neglect the ongoing improbability of life as I compare my performance to that of others who happen to be made of the same stuff, but are somehow different, and even out to get this roving system called me.

It is hard to remember the dream, in other words, when the going gets thick.

Good thing we have literature to remind us.

The best writing shocks the system, inverts the perspective, turns things inside out, jump starts the imagination.

It wakes us up to the dream we dreamed when we came to visit this sad and beautiful planet.

Poems, stories, and literary essays can cast a spell that undoes the spell of forgetting. They can work magic.

Today I have to think about these dynamics because I am returning to my birthplace to synthesize and share what I have learned in 57 and-a-half years of living.

People are going to pay me to talk about the healing power of writing.

The people planning the Celebration of Creative Writing at Cochise College in Sierra Vista have asked me to come down to conduct workshops over the weekend. They want me to speak, to be on a panel, to talk about the role writing plays in finding meaning in the chaos that life sometimes seems. 

I can't believe it.

I feel that I am being called to do what I was born to do.

It has been a long and circuitous road, and I have made many mistakes, forgotten too many times what I came to this planet to do. The quiet, insistent voice that has been talking to me since I can remember has led me to this point.

As I write this, my mother comes to mind. Ever the dutiful son, I remember her and how she pushed me toward this moment. Of course, being the rebellious son, I pushed back and left, slamming the screen door.

But I am back now, older, less proud, less cocksure.

I have been broken and humbled in this life, toiled long days in obscurity. Now I am asked to bring home what I have learned. I am not sure I can do it. I don't completely trust my resolve or my courage.  My heart races. It feels like fear, like excitement, like life at its most intense. I want to run. I want to turn it off. I want to embrace it. I feel a rush of panic and want to say I can't do it. It's all a big mistake. I'll call in sick. Or well.

No matter. Curtains up.

Show time. Hope I break a leg or two.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Second Fiddle Is Still Music

Yesterday was a busy one. I did an interview for the student newspaper about the prison project at 10:00. Then a promising prospective graduate student called to discuss service learning at the UA English Department at 11:00. Then I bought bike lights for a recently released inmate's bike at noon, when they were on sale. He has been riding across Tucson in the dark after volunteering at the Poetry Center. Tucson is a dangerous place to ride a bike after dark, even with blinding blinky lights. It seems drivers want to cut it close, but that's another essay.

Then I had to plan a panel and workshops for a conference this coming Friday and Saturday from 1:00 to 3:00.

Then, until 5:00, I had to write my Annual Performance Review, the document that accounts for how I spent my time on the clock at the University of Arizona. It is a ponderous document, containing cover letter, vita, teaching evaluations, supervisory evaluations, syllabi, writing samples, itemized efforts at improving my efficiency, and more.

So it was a busy day. Thing was, none of this was part of my job description. I am supposed to them on my own time. Nowhere in this document do I mention the work I do in the community, as personal or required writing, or at the prison. 

I don't get credit or release time or even office space to help with these programs. I just do them, sometimes for about 15 - 20 hours a week. It's what I do, credit or not.

And, this is a confession, one that might get me in trouble if my superiors were to read this, I do them before I do my regular work of teaching, grading, class observations, committee work, administration.

Why? you might ask.

I do them because they give my days more meaning, because they are important, because they are what rise to the top of my awareness, like butter fat cream floats to the top of raw, unpasteurized milk.

That's all fine, but what if they interfere with getting my regular work done? What about my contract? And what if I lose my job because I spent too much time doing tasks that don't pay the bills?

I am a responsible guy, after all -- married, supporting two sons in college, driving a gas-hog pick-up truck.

And, if I listen to people, I am taking big risks, skating on thin ice, risking disapproval from The Man.

They say you have to be rich or very special to do these kinds of service. Work first; do your real passions second. They say you are not a great poet or musician or painter, so you will have to wait. You aren't even tenure track, they say. Ordinary types can't get away with a life that follows the heart. Second fiddles are not supposed to do such things.

That is true. And I am not a star, not particularly a stand-out for a variety of reasons. But I don't know if that matters, really. 

Most of the necessary work that needs doing -- work that raises awareness of sustainability, inequity, and community -- doesn't pay.  It doesn't make money.

So be it.

Maybe it's time to get creative. Poor maybe, but creative. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Too Busy Working to Make Money

We are building a bathroom. From the ground up. In an old, 1930s, adobe ranch house with a decrepit septic system, ancient, out-of-code wiring, and walls that are out of plumb, not square.

Just my kind of project.

Oh, and the contractor bailed after taking $9000. He left us with a project just about half done.

(I know. Stupid. Should have paid half with the remainder due when the job is completed.)

So, there it is: half-baked, half-cocked, bare-bones, unfinished drywall and slab with pipes sticking up out of the floor. My neighbor won't talk to me because of the mess in the back yard.

The whole thing is in my lap, my full-time teacher/volunteer lap.

Oh well.

So, a friend is helping. He knows a lot more than I do about drains, measuring, sequence of tasks, and has many skills I only hear about on CIS. Yes, this is a crime scene, and the plastic barrier tape is up. It may years to crack the case. I approach it with a borrowed hammer drill and tub saw. So far the leads are promising.

One day I am at the Tucson Festival of Books giving a talk on the Prison Writing Project, the next day I am working 12 hours in the trenches (literally) of the bathroom project. Over spring break I chiseled out drains, put up drywall, mudded, primed, textured, and painted walls, and then hit the deck with deck mud, thinset, tiles, grout, and groutitude.

The days were long and stooped over, but gratifying -- groutifying -- in their own way.

When one friend had to go to real work, another stepped in to lend a hand. I am one lucky Mo Fo. He knew how to use a level, measuring tape, and chalk line -- all skills that I have yet to acquire. With his help we progressed to the shower and trying to get the floor pitched so water would run down into the drain. Good thing he came along.

With the help of friends I am making slow progress. I am not much of a builder, and this kind of work does not much dovetail with teaching, getting my reports written, finishing my Annual Performance Review, or grading papers.

Now I go back to that world, with a few blisters, a sore back and hamstrings, and even less money than I had before.

I got to admit, though, it was fun. And I am one grateful dude for the guys I know. They are struggling, working hard, and not benefitting much from stock run-ups, or easy speculation. They actually do things in the world.

I guess that's a recipe for long days, small bank accounts, and cold beer.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Between the Lines

The life of the mind is a struggle between competing narratives. And the narratives we create propel our actions, beliefs, values, and attitudes. These stories are at war. The stakes could not be higher, because the stories determine the course of lives, of relationships, of how we live with and on this planet.

We bathe in them, soak them up like dry towels set on a puddle of bath water. They are everywhere and rain down on us in the form of memories, conversations, movies, the look in the eye of a lover. We will die for them and we will kill, steal, trade souls for them.

When a man pulls a gun out in a bank, he is living out the belief that he should have money, that the need for money outweighs the risk of prison. When a woman opens her legs for a fee, she is living the story that sex is a commodity to be traded, no less than a doctor taking a fee for suturing a child's cut above the eye.

There are stories that tell us life is about survival at all costs, that our welfare is more important than that of those from whom we steal or exploit. We see life as a jungle hierarchy. The story becomes a reality.

When I go to prison to run the writing workshops, I know I step into a crucible of stories. There, race runs the show and power is king. The brutality of prey and predator sits like a poison cloud over the yard. You survive by playing the system and the system survives by feeding on the stories of fuck or be fucked.

There are stories that see life as creation, as an evolution beyond executioner and victim. They come from a place that sees what might be, not just what is. These stories weave their way into art and literature. They speak from longing, find ways into songs and poetry.

I know that poetry has a life of its own and that it joins us in the workshop. The generative force that drives the creation of a new story permeates and infuses the circle of men. It whispers "You can write a different story, one that touches the grief and joy without destroying your progress. You can be more human, more compassionate, empathetic, connected, alive. Your life is a wonderful piece of clay that you shape out of images and words you have not yet imagined."

It is a whisper compared to the roar of fear and anger on the yard. But if one can listen, the voice of possibility responds. It is a living impulse that cannot be silenced.

Some would call opening such a door a lost cause, would argue that such an airy pursuit is no match for the fear and carnal appetite of prison, or  day-to-day hustle in this man's America.

Another voice, more elusive, more in this world than of it, would charm rather than seduce, would whisper rather than shout, and would surprise with a dance that says, yeah, why not?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

James Dean Once Considered Mopping the Floor Rather Than Taking an Early Exit

He was sitting in his favorite chair reading a movie script, but thinking about switching on the game, when she came home.

"I think we should clean the house tonight, dear," she said, breathless, as she set down two bags of groceries.

There was a tone in her voice that told him this was not open to discussion.

"And I have a yoga class later, so we need to begin now."

He wanted to say "But I was just going to..." when he thought better of it. He closed his reading and set it on the table. He pulled himself out of the chair, his tousled mop of signature rebellion looking a bit flat. He had put on a little weight.

His tight, straight-legged jeans bound his movements as he stretched, his mind quelling the rising insurgency. He was getting better at what she called watching his reactions.

"The mop and bucket are in the furnace room, next to your saddle and motorcycle," she reminded him firmly, but gently. "And I am so proud of you for having given up that nasty smoking habit. I mean, really, that cancer stick hanging off your lower lip all the time was really unhealthy. You need to get more exercise and fiber now that you're taking care of yourself. And I appreciate your not driving quite so fast. Traffic is much easier now that we can use the Pruis instead of that rough ride of that Corvette and your Porchie race car, or whatever you call it."

"PorSCHE," he said, with a German "UH". 

He had to admit that he did feel better now that he was getting regular sleep, keeping the hard drink to a healthy moderation, and seeing his therapist.

He plodded dutifully to the furnace room and noticed that his Norton was gathering dust. There was a puddle of oil beneath the kick starter. She would not like that.

He pulled the mop off the hook and cleared a path to the cat litter box. The last time his box of road maps had blocked access to the litter, the cat had peed on his favorite chair, the leather one, the one that looked like a bucket seat of a Ferrari.

"You have to sweep first," she reminded him when she saw that he planned to mop right away.

"Got it," he mumbled.

"Would you like some music to clean by? I have a great playlist of whale sounds or crashing waves in the distance," she offered, now wearing baggy sweats and fuzzy slippers.

"How about some blues?" he said.

"No, I can't clean while you play that whiny, hoarse music. It's so unsatisfied, so full of angst.... and longing," she chirped as she began dusting the leaves of the palm plants.

She practically floated over to the I-Pod and turned on the whale-call music. He pointed the broom deep into the corners under the floor cabinets in the kitchen. He pulled out scraps of kale leaves, whole-wheat pasta noodles, a piece of tamari-marinated salmon.

How did all that stuff get there? he wondered.

Then the phone rang and a buddy of his wanted to hit the town, then go up a car race up north.

"Nah, I got some things I have to do," was all he said, but there was more going on in his little image of how the evening might go.

On the one hand, he felt things so strongly. He lived for fire, for passion, for risk. He had made his career on being the bad boy, the one that, when given the opportunity to reflect before acting, chose acting, even when that was self-destructive. He was working on this, with his therapist, and in the meditation class he was taking with his new girlfriend. He knew he could stay home and "do the right thing," but there was that nagging impulse down there in the steamy folds of his gut that said "you know what you have to do."  The image of his father asking him, so close he could smell pipe tobacco and Johnny Walker, "are you a 'nice boy' or a tough boy?" the question dripping with contempt.

The sweeping was going well enough, but a pressure was building in his chest as the whales sang and she hummed along, thinking that the garden really needed some work too.

"You have to learn to detach, to disassociate, to dis-identify with your urges," the therapist had said. "It is the witness of your emotions that is going to get you through these hard times," she said. "You have created an idea of yourself that is dangerous and headed for a dark outcome."

He wanted to sink into his feelings, to let them guide him.

True, doing that had led to broken affairs, drugs, fights, dead-ends of all kinds.

But. Always that but. He felt the fire burning in him and wanted to move, to sizzle on the spit of oxytocin and dopamine and the roar of a Corvette leaving a patch of rubber at the first photon of green light.

It was different now that they had moved in together, he had to admit. He spent more time working, for sure, but also more time at home. She wanted to talk, wanted to get to know him. It was hard, because he did not really know himself, couldn't answer her questions.All that introspection felt prickly, if not indecent.

Her friends seemed to know so much more, and he was jealous when men would make her laugh or swoon with a wise and pithy observation about childhood or family histories of conditioning. She was like a foreign country to him, more foreign than what lay over the horizon on his aimless rambles on his motorcycle. Back then, when he was looking for something, he never thought he would find this.

This was the hardest thing he'd ever done, for sure. This ordinariness was bizarre.

He finished sweeping, and he had to admit that the floor looked good. He filled the bucket and began to mop the tile. Outside the ocean shimmered like hammered silver.  He thought about the valley and the heat and a time when the cigarette hanging from his lip had caught the eye of a film maker. He just went along with everything after that. It was fun, kinda phony, but fun. The surliness was real, though. He had a bone to pick with the world.

Then he met her and she did not kiss up to him. In fact, she stared him down. He took a turn and followed something else. That was a mystery. It was different, confusing. The terrain she saw was inside, invisible to the dancers and trend-setters he hung with.

All he knew was that he stayed, might even stay for a long time, even if he never understood why, and that in this life, anyway, he might never be the legend who died too young, who made for the perfect end to a story that people would tell again and again, the one about leaving behind such a beautiful corpse, as they laid flowers on his young grave.

Yes, that was a nice image. And the hot blood pulsing through him pushed over one domino that led to the next and the next.

He found the phone in the back room and rang his buddy. "I changed my mind. The races sound like fun."

His witness was no match for the hand that grabbed his leather jacket, a pack of cigarettes, and watched his feet as they carried him toward the door that opened onto his collection of gleaming muscle cars. They crouched there in the low light. He asked himself what he was doing, knowing in some way that this was the moment, the one that goes on and on, offering itself up to the call of how to use it.

He thought something about a road and being less traveled. Bunch of BS.

The seat conformed to him as he started the engine. The growl erased any doubt that he had about taking hold of a wild mane. He felt light and dizzy, possessed. The badness hooked him with a grip he was no match for.

He wheeled the car out onto the road that led him out and away. He was done mopping. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


J. talked about the race riots as we drove away from the half-way house. It was his first day out on his own. He had a place now and would sleep in if he wanted, come and go without having to check in, could get a cell phone, a camera, stay out late. The state said he could not drink. The Feds said he could.

"I'll go with the Feds," he said as we drove east, toward the sun and his new place.

"If you're white -- or brown, or black, or whatever the wrong color is in that moment -- and in the way, you'll get it," he said. "They don't care what you think in those moments. Like I'm an independent. It doesn't matter to them."

He talked more prison politics. He was open about it. Even though he was out and likely done with it, he still worked at it, let it out.

"The shot callers make you do things." 

He had a few plastic bags of clothes and a red electric guitar, China Girl, because it was red, real red, like high-gloss Chinese enamel.

"You're just in it," he said. "The riots are like a tornado or a wild fire. One instant it's all happening over there, and then, Bam!, it's right next to you, right in your face. And you gotta act. No choice, man."

As J. talked, I thought of starlings, hundreds of thousands of starlings, in flight, in a flock, winding and shifting, and breathing like a giant organism made up in coordinated individuals. They are subject to the group movements, the group whims, thoughts and decisions and forces bigger than single members of the flock.

Ornithologists call these gatherings murmurations, perhaps for the whispering sounds they make and wings beat in unison.

Yet, no birds drop from the sky, beaten and damaged from those murmurations. Race riots leave bodies broken and bleeding on the yard. Property gets trashed.

Starlings move according to some ancient urgings. The shots get called somehow, but they work to get the flock home to roost, to follow wind currents that make migration more efficient.

Humans play by rules too. The flock rules are more about beliefs than air currents. We live in swirling abstractions that we construct and enforce. Individuals play along or pay the price being exposed and alone.

Which tribe do you belong to? How much do you make? What do you do? Are you wi me or agin me?

We aren't a flock trying to survive the elements, we are tribes vying for advantage over each other.

But we admire the starlings, post videos of their fluid clouds of changing shapes, the governing rules of wind currents, and dancing grace, of choreography and shared vision.

J. knows how the human flock can move, how it can be a steamroller that crushes its own kind. He has no illusions. He is re-entering the stream, playing a new game. The rules, contrary to what the starlings deal with, are malleable, can be revised.

Starlings roost rather than crash and burn. I guess you gotta know where you want to end up.

I hope J. gets to run with starlings now that he is out of the pen. We'll fly, crazy busy, but watching the wings and sensing the changes in the wind. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Volunteer

He is tall. We see him heading downtown on his tall bicycle in a T-shirt, shorts, reflective vest. It is 46 degrees, and the sun has not yet popped over the horizon.

Cars, however, have swarmed the roads heading into town, making it something of a slalom through parked vehicles when he approaches the stoplights. They are turning and have blocked the bike lane. No matter.

He will wend his way through miles of streets, dozens of stoplights like this one. He is on his way to help others who can't afford the help. He will install toilets, water heaters, replace leaky gas lines, crawl under double-wides to locate sewage leaks.

Some of the houses will be tidy, their residents grateful for his work. Others will be neglected and filthy. Some of those people will nag him about doing a better, faster, more thorough job. They will bitch. They will offer him food.

He is a young man, only eighteen, recently out of high school, living away from home, finding his way, making connections.

He is not in it for money or recognition or credit. Nobody told him to do this. He listens to a voice only he can hear.

But he is learning how to do things, how to read people, to see the range of what some people do with their lives, their triumphs, their failures, their wounds. He is getting an education.

And he watches. He is recording. Not much is lost to a young man paying attention, his mind still clear, somewhat less cluttered than it might be. He does not seek distraction, but a good story or movie or soccer game makes for a break from the grind of having to be "on."

What will he do with this time, this volunteer? And what will he make of it when he is older, looking back on how he pulled the bills from his wallet of allotted time? What will he gain for those precious days laid down on the counter of experience?

What does any of us gain from our actions done in days that show up before we are fully ready for them to pass?

I guess it depends on what you, he, or I do with the change left after the accounts are tallied.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Story That Heals

There are times when the heart beats like wings of quail scared into flight by a pursuing hawk.

Those are the times when a story is trying to be born.

It is gestating in the steamy folds of flesh at the core of you. It is what you have wanted all  your life, a heart's desire both powerful and fragile. It refuses to die, even when locked away in solitary for a lifetime. It is the message that we carry into this life, the words we are supposed to find and utter to the ones we love, and to the ones we don't.

The story can explode in a fit of rage and exhaustion that threaten to bring down empires of habit. It can exhale in a whisper after making love. It is made of the words that expose and lay bare and liberate.

The words terrify. You don't want others to know what they are. Your life depends on letting others know what they are.

The words are there, but have to be earned. They are wild horses that must be drawn down from the mountains by handfuls of sweet grass. The grass is grown by you over years patience and cultivation and faith.

They come snorting mist in the chill of morning. They whisper I forgive you. They pull you to your feet and call you home to the woods, to the words that wait for you to give them breath and life.

It is what you want the world to see of you, the you that is true, that is your birthright, your destiny.

And it is right in front of you, visible when you have the eyes to see it, the silence to hear it, and the willingness, the presence of mind, to remember. What are they? The wild, skittish, and beautiful words?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Black Dog

The black dog was back again. It was not the first time and was not even much of a surprise. But this time he was heavier than before, and the dog seemed darker, deeper.

The dog followed him, plodding along, persistent as night, and had a way of sapping attention, energy, hope even. The messages were always the same. His sad eyes said no and it's not worth it and why bother.

The worst part was that he would sit on the man and weigh him down, make it hard to move, to rise, to carry any load.

The dog put up a blockade: nothing in, nothing out. It did not matter that the sun shone or that friends stopped by. The man could not see it, was not really there to take it in. And the thoughts went round and round and spiraled down to the aching bone at the heart of him.

The dog didn't care,but seemed to like the disconnect, seemed to feed on it. It grew heavier, closer.

The man tried to outrun the dog and would speed away on his bicycle or his running shoes or in a car. The dog would fade into the distance sometimes, but would always catch up when the man had to rest.

Every once in a while the man hid in a fog of drink or he wrapped himself in the blanket of love's comforts. But the dog was stronger than all of it, and he was there, waiting, patient, hungry.

The man wondered how long the dog would stay this time, how he would hold off the heaviness. The dog would leave eventually. It always had in the past. But it showed no signs of being in a hurry this time.

It was time again to take his friend to the desk, to the canvas, to the music. The only way to shake the dog was to give to something bigger than himself, to turn darkness into something of beauty, as much as his ability would allow. The nagging anchor of the dark night lightened a bit when he found a phrase, or a line, or the right note, so he sang, and tried to dance.

This time, maybe, the dog might outlast the flickers of hope that managed to glow in the dark.

Maybe too the dance might push though the night, leaving the dog a distant shadow when the sun burst over the ridge.