Monday, December 26, 2016
The bubbling words just won't shut up. They are pushing me forward, not so much bullies as friends who care enough not to let me slide into oblivion without having at least tried to add my voice to the mix. I just want to step up to the mic and say my piece, even though doing so is the most terrifying thing I can imagine. Both terrifying and passionately necessary. This is not just an ego thing. It's a human thing. The words have to be about being human, about what I want people to remember about the particular configuration of traits, of genetic lottery and accident, that I was here, that I took my shot at making beauty, that I surrendered and failed, that I was unique, that I was just like you.
Every once in a while, when the smoke clears, and a bolt of clarity pierces the fog that is the habit of no way never again, a tendril of hope sprouts from your little aching heart. It defies all odds and pushes up between the cracks in your armor, the reinforced concrete of your decision to stand alone, frozen, free from the pain of love. It creeps forward, toward some unseen light, knowing full well what it is getting into, in spite of your fear. It may be tender, but it is not weak. Given the slightest sliver of courage it will split the walls that keep you from the beloved, will send you tumbling forward into your deepest most secretly held desire. It knows no quit, and persists as long as you continue to draw breath, even in the deepest, most obscure, midnight of no moon.
Saturday, December 24, 2016
In the beginning, they say, was the capital W Word. And the Word was made flesh. It went from sound to action, from idea to life out here in the actual dog-shit world. On this, the eve of Christmas, I wonder what the hell this might mean in terms of how and why we use language. One way to look it is 1), that talk is cheap, and 2.), words matter. Both of these are true. The difference lies in how language is used. Is it being used to confuse, distract, fill empty spaces with babble, or to pave the way onto one's story? For day-to-day business or spiritual direction? Not that one is bad or good, but that they are different. The point is not to confuse the two. And to live the two. Fun and frivolity (beer) plus direction and significance (psycho-spiritual vitamins). When one is short supply, the other can suffer. Nihilism grows out too much empty blather; not everything that happens in life is "significant." An overdose of meaning can strand one in a dreamland of disconnected purpose, of seeing symbolism in Big Gulp cups blowing along the highway. (Now, one might say that there is no inherent meaning in anything in this crazy world. Got that, but it's another conversation.) So, time to drink in the spirits with the vitamins, is all I'm saying. In the service of what remains the question.
Friday, December 23, 2016
OK, the time has come. I want to know. My mother died of early-onset Alzheimer's, my father of Parkinson's and Lewy body dementia. I need to know if I'm carrying the markers that indicate sources and symptoms of my future decline. I have decisions to make that will take genetics into account. The prospect of testing has lit a fire of terror. This is all for real and for keeps. Testing positive will raise questions that I don't want to answer, but will have to, pushed, as I will be, against the wall of my cognitive fate. Illusions of invincibility die hard. There aint no way around it. Might as well face the monster, one way or the other.
Thursday, December 22, 2016
A diamond file cuts into the backside of an amonite fossil that he will install in a mosaic. The fossil spirals out from a center, an origin set in mystery, followed by a life expanding outward to a clear, finite end. While ruminating on this, he hears rain. It's raining in the desert, on this the shortest day of the year. The clouds mute what light does make it under the roof over his porch. Fine dust from the amonite drifts down onto his blue jeans, one of two pair that are still presentable enough for wearing to work. The acrylic mastic has left a white stain already. It won't come out, even after washing. The pants are likely toast anyway. That, he will worry about later. All that matters now is today, this task at hand, the movement of his hands in which he holds the file, applying the sharp teeth to the back of a once living thing made stone. That monument to what once was will hang on his wall, testifying to a life caught in a snapshot. The powder of it drifts down settling on his leg, piling up there like a fine dusting of snow. The rain will likely turn to snow tonight. He takes a break to sip his egg nog, and the glutinous texture reminds him of the flesh long gone of the little cephalopoda now framed in a stone grid, a narrative, held, for now, frozen, for anyone with eyes to see.
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
They were as thick and continuous as beads on a string, showered him like a streaming cascade, accompanied him wherever he went. From them he derived his sense of self. All significance grew out of them. He built castles to justify them, let and lost blood in their name. He pasted them, fated labels, on all the objects of his world, the ten thousand things that he got to touch and turn in his hand, like polished marbles. What he thought was that world was really his thoughts about the world. He lived in a prison of words, erected by his hurts and losses. When he tried to touch the world, the words yanked on the leash that held him. Only with another set of words could he fashion the means of his liberation. So he crawled under the tables in the darkness to find the ones he had lost. Those were scattered in a far corner of his imagination, and would only show themselves if he began to remember, remember the way he had lost, his grip on the reason he was here.
Monday, December 19, 2016
Somewhere between here and there it got lost or sidetracked or forgotten. The intention was usually noble, if not always practical. He would make that call, answer that email, submit that article, follow up with gratitude, make an amend, sink his teeth into the circumstances of his life. But in translation, usually about the time the sun came up, the fears began to bind and paralyze him. Where did they come from? Years, he thought. Years of habit, default, inertia. As the sky lightened in the east, he felt them extending their tendrils, the first inklings of inaction that would become steel cables if he let them. He sharpened a blade, one he had been carrying for a while, but was reluctant to wield. He threw some fuel into the furnace of his imagination and began to form an image of another possibility that might grow in place of the same old same old. It was hard to focus on his work, felt like a betrayal. But no one was there anymore to leave behind or to answer to. He began to hone the blade on a stone. The edge he put on it made shaving easy, the strop, lined as it was, with diamonds.
Sunday, December 18, 2016
It is not the crouching Toyota, nor the hidden Durango, but it is poised to enter the pantheon of epic chariots. It is the color of midnight, nibbles on plain kibble, and scoots along with the race horses on Interstate 10 without breaking a sweat. It's the first new car in this long and clunker-filled life. We are getting to know each other, and, so far, things look pretty good. It is homespun in a world of glitz and cyber fanciness. The windows work with a crank; the locks between thumb and finger; and the key is plain old metal: no chip, no dip. It's a machine to carry me into old age. With any luck I'll cross the line before Sapo does. When he goes, he will match the ethereal depth of a night gone bonkers with stars.
* Sapo is Spanish for toad, in this case a blue toad, like a poison dart tree frog, only with wheels.
Saturday, December 17, 2016
At the risk of sounding ungrateful, he turned his gaze on the year winding down and saw a smoking wreck, but one lit with the glow of possibility. On the one hand he had "the list," the reasons to be whimpering with woe: his truck had been stolen, he got pneumonia, he ruptured an Achilles tendon, he watched his father die. On the other hand, he visited his son in Panama, was awarded a sabbatical, got to scribble away on a book manuscript, and saw families divided share drinks in the same room. His heart opened wider than it had been in his adult life. He felt the pain and joy of love, was assaulted by beauty. He dreamed. Of course, his limitations persisted, but he began to massage them into being more allies than drawbacks. He listened to the Muses and sometimes heard them, followed them, gave into them. Metaphors, images, surprises, turns of phrase leaped out from the shadows and flowed onto the screen in front of him. He tasted coherence, saw the outline of a life's work. The wounds of loss broke the shell that bound him. He sang away the grief, found peace in giving to others the best of him.
With The Bear buried, the funeral finished, the winter gone white with wonder, it's time to plot my next moves. Square one, blank canvas, open door all wait for some movement, some indication of intent. Even Simone the cat looks at me with her feline expectation of " 'sup dude?" I'm still heavy with sadness and I cry at the end of "Call the Midwife." What good is that? Time to shake off the lead, boil away the mental mush, drain the colander of excess drama and get my sorry ass off the chair and into motion. It doesn't matter so much what I do as it does that I do something. This whole create-out-of-whole-cloth living is new. I don't quite know how to do it, especially the strange prospect of being happy. How does somebody do that? One step at a time, Glasshoppah, one step at a time.
Thursday, December 15, 2016
It was the river that did him in. Always the river, the one running through his dreams, filling the hallways, the living room, submerging his file cabinet, all the precious appliances of his householding tidiness. That river broke into foaming thunder as it washed him downstream, tumbling through the hydraulics, barrel rolls, and bubbling holes. He found that he kept his head above water enough to catch a breath once in a while, but that there was no hope of ever getting back to the way things were. So he stuck his feet out front to push off the incessant series of boulders and laid his back out enough to both stay afloat and to see the stars that shone between overhanging trees. It was the river, rolling with the river, not so much the places, that mattered. Yes, his love wanted more, wanted to know and to hold it all, but it swept through his fingers, all this running water. The facts of things spoke to him: Let it go. Feel it. It's always and forever moving. This was it, he thought, or rather knew, his new home.
Friday, December 9, 2016
He made the mistake that all fathers make: he was born human. He had work to do, wars to fight, didn't know what I needed him to know. He loved cars, so I went whole hog into bicycles. He was a spit and polish military man, crew-cut and rigid. I went to the university, grew my hair, and fell into a vortex of confusion and indecision. I was Hamlet playing off of his Fortinbras. He radiated life force in a blinding dose, like a siren, and drew people to him. He acted before thinking things through. I pressed the pause button and never turned it off. He was a big fish in small pond, City Council, School Board, Norwegian Dancers, fancy cars. I shopped at Goodwill and blended into the background. He marched to war. I marched to survival gatherings. We were both addicted to sex. He wore shoes that did not fit because they were a good deal. I spent two weeks wages on cycling shoes made of Italian leather. He drank hot water. I drown in coffee. More than anything he loved his family, immediate and extended. I ran away from familiars and craved solitude. We found common ground on skis, hiking Long's Peak. I wake to being human and make the mistakes that all fathers make. I accept what he was able to give, what he had to withhold. I wish he were here to tell how full I have become because of him and all he could and could not say. I inherit his demons and keep them close to my own blind and stumbling secrets.
Wednesday, December 7, 2016
It's the first day with no parent. Orphaned at sixty. Such a thing to be alone in this world, with no one to displease anymore. For so long I wanted to fail out of spite, to prove how wrong they had been by tripping over my own shoe laces. But there is no longer anyone to underwhelm with my defects. Only snow, vast expanses of blinding, white stretches of corn stubble and naked oak trees. The last of my parents, Norm, The Bear, is gone, and he leaves a yawning hole in my psyche. With no one to push against, I am suddenly devoid of purpose, or, rather, free to fulfill my own purpose, robbed now of excuses. I know it is bad form to blame one's parents after the age of twenty-five or so, but I have been a slow learner. I admit it. I'm pretty fucked up. But that is only part of the story. The rest of the story is the terrifying emptiness racing away in all directions. I can forgive them now, have to begin the process of forgiving myself, petulant son I have been. The world is frozen, expectant. The chill is a cold slap, a cold, but welcome slap.
Tuesday, December 6, 2016
Dedicated to my father, Norm, The Bear, and his surrender to a life of love. He would have wanted it this way for me.
When death comes, may it open my heart to the life that was. May it find in me a peace that comes from having given so much that I lost everything to a world in need. When death comes, I hope it finds me used-up, spent, bereft of material trappings, but filthy rich in stories of unreasonable risks, audacious generosity, and leaps off of cliffs into freezing pools. May I be found guilty of having said "I love you" too often. When death comes, may my body be bent from having walked too many miles, been in too many bike crashes. May my face be tanned and wind burned. May my friends get drunk and fall into bed with each other. When death comes, I hope it finds something beautiful that I left behind, something that makes children think, laugh, and cry with tears of understanding. May the words I spoke ring true for years after I am gone. May the love I gave lift my ashes and spread them over the hungry mountains.
Monday, December 5, 2016
Now, before the sun rises, the breath comes easy and the heart is at peace. It knows what it wants. The day sits, alert, waiting to be composed, listening for the incantation. The cat stretches. An owl perches nearby. Everything is possible. Pull out your brush. Paint the day in the colors you have imagined in the cold obscurity of night. One stroke at a time. Patience. Care. A devotion to mastery. You practice. You are fearless, unrelenting, possessed. Eros burns, flesh and bone are lit by the electricity of longing. That sweet hunger guides the muscles to bring the dream to canvas. You carry the pulsing desire from deep inside and smuggle it across the threshold between you and the beloved. With each pulse, the blood drives you forward. Do not be afraid. More than anything, you want to act from love. And you must. You will be carried into the day by light that is born of darkness, lit by a listening heart. All that it needs is for you to remember and to swing your legs out of sleep and into a day swollen with the ache of want. It waits, ripe, engorged, for you, the lover.
Sunday, December 4, 2016
A coyote met me in the yard this morning. He crossed in front of me with only a glance in my direction and what I took to be a sardonic grin as he slipped behind the curtain of creosote that is the border of wild desert. His was not the leash of the pet, nor the deference of domestication. He had no jacket to keep off the chill of December. He colored outside the lines of highways and borders of behavior. How he lived immersed in a city I have no idea. The sight of him stirred something sleeping in me. That part wanted to drop my book bag and follow him into the scrub of survival in the desert. I envied how he could live by only the gifts of claw, fur, and wit. He, I felt, was closer to God than I: no barriers of comfort or complacency. No matter how ravenous the hungry ghost of want, it will never taste freedom the way a lean coyote does. Coyote descendants will still be wandering here long after the towers of pride have collapsed in ruin. The thought gave me comfort as I dialed up the heat in a car running on the rot of trees long dead, of life on its way to the next big thing.
Friday, December 2, 2016
I won't whitewash it. He was a hard father to have in many ways, and we clashed. Sparks flew. We threw punches at each other more than once. He had his hands full with me, and I simmered with rage at him for years. Spit and polish did their best to keep war demons at bay. He was rigid in his rules and harsh with consequences. One time I defied his order that I wash the car. He shaved my head. I was in seventh grade. Everybody had long hair. My girlfriend dumped me. He was also generous to a fault and loving beyond measure. His best friend was a black officer in the sixties. He loved children. He loved to sing. He loved sex and was married twice, six kids of his own and four step children. His biceps were as big as a tree branch. He let me use his credit card when my car broke down in a Montana blizzard. He drove two and a half thousand miles to nurse me when I was crippled and poisoned after a snakebite. He wanted me to be more like him. I am trying.
Thursday, December 1, 2016
Frost has colored the bike white and it bites my bare hand when I lower it off the hook. It is still dark and I am going for a ride on this first day of December. Fingers already numb punch the buttons that engage the lights front and rear. I need those lights, both to see and to telegraph my presence in the skinny bike lane to drivers still half asleep but speeding along at 50 mph. I don't think about the cold but lean into the climb up to the road. It's what I do. With a laptop and a window of time, I wait for words as I pedal south over the river. The bridge has been sprayed with de-icing solution. Good thing too. I don't want a car fishtailing into the bike lane. I pedal toward the light, the warmth, the prospect of something good in a cup. There I will wait for the words that come from a somewhere I still don't quite know. I will let them undo what has been wound into a knot in my neck, my shoulders, my heart. This must be done before the sun rises and chases away the secrets that crouch in the cold, in the dark. I hold a light that woos them forward, out of shadow.
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Not again, you think, as the same old shit comes down the pipe. Being tired and angry and tangled up in knots is not enough anymore. You get out your little shovel of integrity and go to work diverting the flow from where you are to where you used to be. Eyes on the prize you say, lifting your gaze to see the luminescent curtain above you. The northern lights pulse and shimmy there against a backdrop of indigo. Watch your words you say. They have power you say. Remember the way you say. That's where your mind goes. The load in your shovel is a bit lighter as you again, and again, lift a load, clear an opening that will allow you to close the gates. You believe that this will become a habit, a learned, ongoing behavior, like drawing breath or pumping heart. That's where I want to be you say, still trying to infuse your doubts with the conviction that it will happen. What have you got to lose you say. Shovel in. Shovel out. You hit bottom.
Monday, November 28, 2016
Your hands shake, uncontrollably, when you get close. You try to steady them, but they will not listen. They have taken on a life of their own and listen only to the commands of thrumming intangibility. If you have enough courage, you will let them go, let the song waft up from your trembling secrets. You want to breathe, be taken along for the ride, responding, as necessary, with every ounce of your skills, your passion, your love. When you look at your hand, it settles down, finds a way, is calm and steady as a stone. You almost see through it. It knows. It is part of you, but does not belong to you. This is all so new you say. It says I have been here since you were born. You just forgot. Every move is joy; every breath a tonic. Where to from here you ask. Toward the dream it says. You nod. Take me with you. The crazy man is here.
Sunday, November 27, 2016
"What do you want to be called?" I asked him.
We sat in the dreary classroom -- its ceiling tiles drooping, shedding, missing altogether -- and waited for the rest of the inmates to turn out. He was a new guy and had not said much yet. He dodged the question and went into his reasons for coming to the workshop.
"I just want to be able to write and not sound like some idiot," he said. "I never really learned how to write in school. I want to write... better... be able to express my self, my ideas. I need more words, a better vocabulary."
He looked a little sheepish at admitting this, embarrassed. He had made himself vulnerable, something not often done in prison. As I listened to him, I heard an intelligence that he had not yet owned or recognized. His awareness of a term like "vocabulary," his intuition that words had some power, some magic, and that learning the incantation was worth pursuing.
"And I don't even understand what you guys are saying. Like 'abstract'... what's that? I didn't do that last assignment because I didn't know what you wanted, or where to start even. And about my name, it's John, but nobody has called me that for a long time. But it would weird for someone like you..." and here he paused, "to call me by what I go by in here."
That made me wonder what he meant by people like me. I assumed that meant educated, highly practiced in the skills of language, having some social position, professional. I also wondered who called him by his other "handles," and what that code meant in the circles he moved in. The yawning chasm between us, in his mind anyway, might have seemed impossible to bridge. He likely did not see that I saw more commonality between us than difference, in our interest in writing in particular.
"I think its brave to say that you don't know, don't understand. When that happens, stop and ask someone to explain what we're talking about."
He seemed to like that; he relaxed a bit.
"Yeah, I think John is best," he said. "I've never written anything like what the other guys are writing in here."
"Well, you don't have to write the perfect piece the first time," I said. "Just bring in what you write, and we'll start with that."
"I didn't know that poetry could be about what a prisoner thinks. Like S. last week, writing about his dad getting pissed about his son getting suspended. That was pretty cool. I could follow that."
"It was good. And it takes work to get the words down on paper. S. has been working on that for a couple of months. It's just now getting good."
"I didn't expect what I see in here. I've never been interested in learning to write. Now I just want to try. These guys are good. I don't think I'll ever be that good."
"Don't worry about getting everything at once," I said. "Just keep listening. Your brain will start to figure it out. Just give it some time." I felt like saying "Keep coming back; it works," but did not want to invoke a Twelve Step meeting slogan.
"I really have nothing to give," he said. "I mean when I think about my wife, I have nothing to send her, nothing to offer."
"You can give her your memories, your hopes, some of how you care for her even though she is outside and you are here," I offered, thinking it may sound Pollyanna-ish or hollow.
"I do want to tell her that I hold thoughts about her, want to be like a warm coat for her, want to protect her."
"That might be a place to start. Write some of that down, maybe send it to her. I think she might like that," I said. "She might find that a gift, of sorts. Your honesty put into your own words might convey some of that."
A few of the inmates began to trickle in, turned-out finally. The room filled with man hugs, ritualized hand shakes, community.
"John... yeah... John. I haven't been called that for a while. Let's go with that," he said.
He settled in, began to take notes, especially inscribing the things he did not quite yet understand.
Saturday, November 26, 2016
It took only sixty years, give or take, for him to remember his birthright. It took a Sufi poet, a clarion slap from from a desert moon, two broken legs, attendance at the birth of two sons, being stranded on a mountain ridge under summer heat when the water pump went out, and a long, blistered hike across the ugly plain leading to Parnassus. She kept bringing the cup to his lips, but he was stubborn and stupid and proud. A lot of good that did. Now, the tug pulls him forward, beckons just out of reach; he is under the spell and hopes he will never recover. He has slipped from the skin of his former self and left it, like a suit of old clothes, by the side of the road. Naked now, he continues, the path dropping steeply toward the river.
She was nothing if not practical, if not downright opportunistic. He wanted her to care, but she was an indifferent Muse, as she had to be. He knew that when he fell in love with her. Her determination, her fickle interest in the ephemeral, was part of what drew him to her as surely as it would later drop him like a cold potato. He knew all of that, proceeded anyway, eyes not exactly open, feet not exactly beholden to good sense. What would it matter, really, in the end, whether he burned all his bridges or died having been a well-behaved, serious man? For him, at this stage, there was only this moment, the hope for happiness, the impossible state of a heart on fire. He painted the day with his dream and saw only dawn from the seat of midnight. He would later wander the moonlit arroyos whispering her name to the end of his days, gratitude spilling from his lips.
Friday, November 25, 2016
He couldn't decide how to do it. Something slow to ease into it or just a quick finish. The day could not have been more lovely, nor the moon more haunting. Its crescent sharp against the earth shine of the shadow against a deep sea of indigo. Sleep had left him early, about three, so he sat up to watch the moon, to taste the chill of the desert. November nights... so lovely they all but crippled him. It would be hard to say good bye. Or not. Harder to keep going. It's all about costs and benefits in the end. He kept working the numbers, this way and then that, every angle, but they failed to add up, to solve the puzzle. It would take drastic measures, more than he had bargained for. Hard decisions, these that point to territory untracked, silence unbroken. He wished he had learned, while there was still time, to take life as the joke that it was. She had tried to teach him by example, by hard work, by dignity. In the end it would come down to the central question: Should he make breakfast himself or take the easy way out and go to Frank's for the two dollar special? One thing at a time.
Thursday, November 24, 2016
It's dangerous to spend time alone. Alone with your thoughts, your heart, your conscience. It's dangerous to entertain the truths of your treason, your betrayals, your compromises. It's dangerous to change the course of your life, to step out of the path you have worn through dreary habit and distraction. It's dangerous and scary to deal with the pain of honesty. Too much time alone can drive you mad with clarity. Too much alone time will make sleep impossible and inaction a form of torture. The truth of your days reveals itself in these times, the ones that prepare you for your final reckoning. But the thing is, nobody but you knows it. Force of habit, being so strong, might urge you to try to forget. Such is the way of fear, of forgetting, of changing the subject -- all easy when you are no longer alone.
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
They gather by the river. A public space, it doesn't have as much of the "move along" ethos as the convenience store, strip mall, or street corner. They use the bathroom, the water fountain, the picnic tables. Often, the tell-tale tattoos up the arms, across the back, and collaring the neck spell out prison time. That's a hard one to shake, so the shirts usually stay on. They travel on beat-up bikes, piled high with duffels, sleeping bags, water bottles. Sometimes they travel with shopping carts or a simple back pack. They fill in the cracks left by affluence on the move. Stories follow them, drive them forward. Some have vacant stares, others are wary. Mostly, they wander the arroyos with a hope to blend in, invisible as possible. A thin line separates them from me. I wonder if the crack will open so wide that I might fall through, becoming another ghost on the river path. The stories I tell will decide.
Monday, November 21, 2016
The wind carries the smell of rain. It blows hard out of the west and stings with the usual dust and debris of desert turbulence. But it is the scent of wetness, creosote, shaggy dog, a dash of mustiness, that makes the air sing. My legs feel like lead as I push my bike into the wind, alone. Solitude thrives on dusk, inclemency. I am glad to be out. The black dog has been sitting on my heart for a few days, one of which I could not rise for the weight. Darkness can be a burden sometimes. Getting a leg over the edge of the bed is about all I can do. Taking the bike off the hook and engaging inertia enough to get me rolling is Herculean. Yet here I am, out in the whipping wind, with rain sweeping down in a curved veil between me and the Tucson Mountains. It is coming. Thank you rain for the coming baptism, the relief, the open gates of grief. Thank you for feeding the washes, the canyons, the long, empty drop into the waiting pool beneath the waterfall.
Saturday, November 19, 2016
You sit teetering for a while, wondering if the leap is worth it, if you will survive the fall. Fear keeps you frozen there at the tipping point. Grief too. The umbilical will bleed a bit when you cut it. No way around that. You know you can, somewhere down there in the recesses of the psyche, but you don't want to believe it. All that you know no longer helps, no longer applies, was true at the time, but now is more of a chain than a tool. As you take that first step, and the totter begins to tip, ready to dump you into space, you feel like you might die, or, worse, that you might live. Your only comfort is mystery. Mystery and a blank page waiting. Space. The thrill of nothing but that which you make up from here and now.
Thursday, November 17, 2016
It is small, this cup of espresso that greets me on a Thursday morning. But powerful. Like Mighty Mouse or Under Dog, two of my favorite cartoon characters from a childhood spent eating sugary breakfast cereals. It's all I can handle these days. Any more caffeine and I fairly lift into the air from the vibration. The veil between me and the other side of sanity has grown thin, and I'm not one to cross over, yet, anyway. What with a father in hospice, my own body in decline, and a heart that feels like it is breaking most any minute of the day, I can't take any more stimulation. So I have to settle for a bit less from the rich world of coffee offerings. That's not so bad, I guess. I'm learning to take more, to appreciate, in the sense of adding value, to deeply notice the sensory moments of heat, oaky bitterness, vapor, filmy bloom, from every sip. That way I come out even with less, or, maybe, a little bit ahead. A moment lived well can fill a life, can throw the switch that sends flutters through a day.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
The super moon wouldn't leave me alone. It was there when I woke in the morning, there when I went home at night. The light drilled into me through the built-up tar and paper roof over my bed, activated brain cells that refused to sleep until the sun came up and the rest of me had to rise. Ever the enigma, the full face refused to reveal just what the hell it wanted from me other than sizzling what little sanity I have left after all these years of confusion. It is no help right now as I sit, notebook open, in a meeting that will define my future duties as a semi-productive member of society. The lunatic, tragically, or luckily, depending on your view of things, has only his heart to lead him. The brain shrinks to the influence of a walnut in the face of a crashing tsunami. Rolling, rolling, in the surf, I am good for nothing and sit here in this meeting with my supervisor, cradling photons between thumb and finger, like a mandala, or oracle, knowing the answers but unable to move or speak.
Sunday, November 13, 2016
"Is this seat taken?" he asked, beer in one hand, styrofoam dish in the other.
"It's yours if you want it," she replied.
Thirty years or so his junior, she sat at the counter overlooking the tarmac in the Denver airport. A beer stood half full in front of her. She was dressed in a tight, deep diving camisole, a man-sized T-shirt with cut off collar and sleeves draped rakishly off to one side. She slid her stool over to make room.
The airport bar was a din of sports casters calling football games, actors looking sincere and sappy while pitching financial instruments, and drug companies idealizing male sexual performance. Rolling suitcases hugged bar stools and jet-weary travelers studied their smart phones. The three of us sat at a counter against the window, on the edge of the chaos.
He threw himself into talking about himself, where he was going, where he had been, conquests, bankrolls, and bombast.
"Of course, my son doesn't talk to me," he confessed after his initial pitch for admiration.
"Tell me about you," he said, between mouthfuls and long pulls on his ultra-large beer.
"Well, I'm married, have three kids..."
"I'll bet your husband has fun with you," he interjected.
"I don't see why he would let you go traveling by yourself... for how long?"
"I spent three days with a friend up in Portland. I need a break once in a while."
"Yeah, I bet you like to have fun while you're away."
"Hmmm. I'm on my way home now though."
"But you're not there yet," he said, a goat's leer beneath his comb-over. "And I bet you'd like some company while you're in between places, maybe some fun, if you know what I mean."
He put his hand on her thigh and shot her a look as he sipped his drink.
"Women are so... high and mighty these days, not like you. I mean you're the kind of woman a man wants to spend time with." He dangled a French fry in his lips, like a cigarette, still gazing at her.
She swung her leg away from his.
"What's the matter?" he asked. "Not strong enough for you? Tell you what, I heard a joke. Wanna hear it?"
"Not if it's demeaning to women."
"Uh, yeah. Well, here it is: Why do deaf and dumb guys make the best gynecologists?"
"I want to read," she said, pulling out a copy of the New York Times.
"Ewe... New YORK Times... Now there's something I wouldn't read. How can you stand that elitist shit?"
"I want to read my paper, please. I'm done talking to you."
"OK. Well, it's because they read lips. Read lips. Get it? That's the world we live in girl. Get used to it."
She shuddered and turned away from him.
"So you're a chilly bitch now. Well good luck with your break from your little cage of a life."
Pause. Slow drag on dregs of tall beer. Set glass on counter. Gaze out the window at planes being loaded with bags, fuel, food.
"It's my world now, sweet heart. My world. And you keep this seat warm, because I'm over there when you want to talk some more. My rules. You gotta pay to play."
He stood with his now empty glass and greasy fingers. He looked down the bar to where I sat, looking straight at him. She looked too.
I'm here my look said. He caught the drift, lowered his eyes, then looked back in defiance, postponement. He was taking measure.
"I'll see you," he said. "It's my time now."
Thursday, November 10, 2016
Yes, he has tremors, is agitated, has lost the ability to walk, is hooked up to a catheter, lives by a complicated regimen of meds, and has lost most of his muscle to atrophy. It is possible that this day or the next will be his last here in this life. He is hard to be around, needs constant monitoring, is a bit of a jerk sometimes. He still knows how to sling a profanity or two when he doesn't get his way, even if that way is the result of a delusion or a desire to escape the hoses and weaknesses binding him to a failing body. But he still loves to have his hair washed, his feet rubbed, sleep next to the current love of his life. He still likes to wake up at home, hear the birds that sing from the corner of the room. He still likes home-cooked food, the comfort of his chair, the yellow leaves in the back yard, the cat on his lap. When we sit on the back porch, leaves hop and roll across the yard, caterwauling like so many paper stars, or drunk marathoners after the report of a starting pistol. The trees, leaf by leaf, undress, getting ready for the long, naked sleep of winter. A raised fireplace holds burning leaves, downed oak branches. The smoke mixes with the scent of rot and slime from leaves left too long in piles. He says he is warmed by the sound of the fire. My father's head droops over his lap. We drink way too much, eat too much ice cream. No matter how much we feed the flames, the fire stays hungry. We tell stories. When it is time, we go inside to tend to the necessary indignities of aging. It is hard work, this gift of a last few days of life in his home, but his wife, Linda,her sister, Cathy, and her daughter, Laura, carry out the task with love and care, never neglecting to ask, "Dear, What is it that you want?" before listening, their eyes on his, a waiting smile when he answers.
Thursday, November 3, 2016
We didn't know it at the time, didn't see how rare was the blessing. Thinking it would last forever, we went on worrying about what others might think, how we might afford it, who might object. In the scrambling to figure it out, the magic faded, dispersed, fell around us in dust. We didn't know it until it just wasn't there anymore. But the heart remembers, and when the music turns true, or the movie gets it right, it knows. It is then that I do what I can to forget. Tequila helps. Small talk not so much. I try to squirm out of it by rationalizing, but the heart knows bullshit when it sees it. So careless. How could I have been so bereft of care?
Candles float on the glassy surface lighting the faces gathered to remember. Words bring the circle together. Young people are the most honest, most concise. Thunder rumbles in the distance. Rain falls, first lightly, then in waves that drum on the roof. Creosote-laced air rustles the curtains. The candles drift in the disturbance. Water ripples. The faces stay focused on the light, still lost in reverie. On this, the Day of the Dead, we celebrate love and loss. My heart is cold, asleep, when I place my candle onto the dream we call living. A stranger knocks on the door, alert with news. Outside, next to the path where children walk, a rattlesnake rests in a coil. She wants me to move it. It is torpid enough to pick up with my hand. I move it to the wash so the revelers won't get too close on their way to cars in the parking lot. I set it there on the sand, and it opens up, almost yawning, before it serpents its way to higher ground. A flood is coming.
Wednesday, November 2, 2016
As the big joke that runs through the Cosmos would have it, a pack rat had moved into my file cabinet. Imagine, if you will, the proof of my life: birth certificate, social security card, diplomas (high school, BA, Master's, PhD), and certificates (lots of certificates), titles to cars, houses, last will and testament, financial statements, tax returns, and letters of recommendation/evaluation/contract from thirty years of teaching, all chewed and shat upon by a hungry little rodent. Well, that's what greeted me when I opened up the cabinet to cull out the unnecessary documents of my time here on earth. Being a philosopher at heart, I ranted only briefly (two days) before accepting that a rat had gnawed and pissed on the most important papers produced by my existence, turning them to manila confetti complete with tidy fecal pellets. Perfect, in its way. The papers will, eventually, be as meaningless as Egyptian parchments blowing across the sand dunes of the Sinai. But today, this here and now, they do mean something, prove to my peers that, yes, I do have credentials and property. Ephemeral though they may be, I am beholden to Caesar for a few more years until I render unto bigger forces the worth of my days. Time to clean up and sort through the mess. Can't check out yet, no matter the meaninglessness of trying to get it right.
Tuesday, November 1, 2016
Yes, it's the day before the day of all souls. The forces of fear and darkness have been vanquished for now, and the souls can rise up. All Souls Day reminds me that the ocean of mystery is large, that I am only a drop of that ocean, and that I can trust and grieve all that I don't understand about life and how it passes from one generation to the next. For the day I sit by the grave. I see my dancing bones dressed in black and purple, embrace the ephemeral form of this body, and prepare to let it go. So many have gone before me already in this life: my first wife, Eliana, lovers Natalia, Mary M., my mother Phyllis Marlene. The list is long, getting longer. My name moves up toward the front as the days pass. It is the day to remember, to prepare, to touch the cold and moving waters of the incomprehensible, to grieve, surrender, and most importantly, to open. Open the cage of the heart that holds a soul captive and let it loose so it can fly free from a world of pain and clutching. There it might meet and comfort another still pent up, like a bat in a birdcage.
Saturday, October 29, 2016
He extended a thickly muscled leg while offering a hand four times the size of mine to use as a counterweight.
Unbelievably, maybe even miraculously at the time, I let myself trust his bulk enough to begin the climb up the face of his body. I leaned back, perpendicular to his flexing plane of ascent, to get grip from my bare feet and take step after step, from ankle to shin to knee (sorry about stepping so hard on your knee, dad), to thigh, crotch (ouch again), before abdomen (ripped six-pack from days as Golden Glove boxer workouts), to chest, and then, unbelievably, shoulders.
There I stood, king for a moment, on top of everything, almost banging my crew cut against the ceiling, my perspective changed. I looked down on the living room, my mother, my brothers and sisters. I was almost four years old, and he was about to leave for Korea.
Now, over eighty years later, he is the one who walks like a toddler. He is palsied, liver-spotted, exorcised of his Golden Gloves cockiness; he stumbles with words, looks for them when they fail to come. He falls. He wears diapers.
I am not going to lie. I don't look forward to seeing him this way, but I know I must go. The flight I can't really afford has been booked, rental car reserved. Time blocked out.
It's time to go. I am not all of the man I hoped to become. I have been angry at him for what he couldn't give me.
A son has to own his role in falling short of his dreams.
A son has to give up blaming a father for his failures.
A son pockets his anger.
A son lifts the heavy tongue of the wagon that carries his father into his final days. He leans into the weight and forces the the wagon to roll ahead, inevitably.
He may want to quit, to avoid, to cave in to habits too old to forget. But a son shows the father that he can, that it is because of the father that he heaves against the weight, finds peace in the pulling. A funereal pyre and a long rest wait at the end of this final journey.
My father dreams of his father, of the warmth of a barn full of horses, cows, sheep, goats. He smells the manure and it is rich and muted with hay and corn. Outside the wind howls. It's January in northern Minnesota, and the father of my father carries incredible weight with hands four times the size of his son's. He teaches his son to play cribbage to pass the time, to work, to never back down.
My father was a giant, a tree, a mountain, a fighter. He and I fought. I landed a few. He gave me coils of rage that I have yet to untangle.
A son begins the work to untangle. He shows his father that he loved the boy into a man.
A son finds in his father a gift that no grief can ever repay, that no shame can hide.
Thursday, October 27, 2016
Space is all there is down there. Hanging over nothing that is. He is what some might call over-extended. Made too many commitments, let his heart sail away on a stiff breeze, spinnaker full, way past the horizon of his control, began a story he has no chance of finishing. He went just a bit too far to return, and now the tether that used to hold him has stretched to the breaking point. One more step, or even a lean against it, and, snap, it's history. The thing he is standing on might not support his substantial weight, though. If that's the case, he's done too. Oh well, it was the best he could do at the time, given the boundaries of his imagination, the blinders he helped put in place. Might as well test the extension to see if and what it gives.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Much as I am loathe to admit it, there are times when you have to think. You have to arrange the chess pieces of your life in a way that includes souls other than your little self and your puny horizons. Doesn't matter if you want it more than anything, are stamping your feet like a spoiled two-year-old in a fling-yourself-to-the-ground-fist-pounding-feet-kicking tantrum. It aint the right thing. You can't quit your job, buy a van, move to Colorado, get a dog, and live on scribbles. Yet anyway. Yes, you are champing at the bit and going nuckin' futts, but take a moment to consider the cost. And a bigger part of you knows it, has to get it, has to think it through. The old saw of the blues song "just because you can doesn't mean you should" bangs around in the crazy hungry cavern of your little skull. The consequences outweigh the bennies. There are irrefutable facts to consider -- sixty effin' years old, crazy as a bedbug, locked into contracts, bills to pay -- to meet face-to-face. You can't really eat like a sparrow and shit like an elephant, or, better yet, the other way around. Truly.
Tuesday, October 25, 2016
The banquet table was spread with mini chimichangas, stuffed mushrooms, pickled red peppers, a plate of pork tenderloin, and cheeses, lots of cheeses: Havarti, real mozzarella, brie. The plates were tiny though. I could see I would be making many trips. But before the food, I needed one of those cold ones offered at the open bar, staffed by a friendly server with a barbell piercing in her nose. "Anything local?" "Closest is Cali. Lagunitas." She obliged my thirsty eyes. Even provided a frosted glass. Now one might wonder what a yahoo like me is doing at some fancy hotel with an open bar and gourmet hors d'oeuvres. Well it just so happened that I was here to read a poem, a few poems actually. Aloud. To people. Who would have thunk it? The lout from Stoogetown, Wisconsin in front of a bunch of university muckity-mucks reading original verse? Yikes! Miracles can happen. I did include gun powder and pheasant shit in one poem though. The only way forward, in this case, is out the barrel, after all.
Monday, October 24, 2016
Not unlike a finger in a live light socket, the symptoms snap your attention into the here and now. A fever, pulsing nerves, sleeplessness, and heart in a vise all point to mysteries on the move. You have been hit by the spell, are collateral damage in the cross-hairs of alignment. Soul, brain, body, and something larger have all conspired to set you straight. Problem is now you're good for nothing in this world of money changers and character assassins. So you've got to go it alone until you find your tribe, your kindred. It's a crazy thing, and some will spurn you, will never forgive you. Yes, you are one of the crazies. Welcome home, the home that always changes, riding the wave of life on fire.
Sunday, October 23, 2016
He and the cat greeted the morning by sleeping in. It was October, finally, and the swamp cooler, failing as it was, took a break after the marathon of summer in the desert. Glorious is the work of the slug-a-bed. But there was more here. He tasted the rare prospect of being at the helm of his day. No honey-doos, no work drudgery, no immediate home crisis. This had to be one of the rarest of rare experiences a human being can have he thought to himself. True, he was limited by money and his lack of fitness, but he was free to get up and do whatever the hell he wanted for maybe the first time in his long, plodding adult life. This was the key, he realized, to finding some of what he had lost over the years. The way, as usual, but now so utterly distinct, was to find a blank sheet of paper and pick up where some part of him,that part that still held a dream, had left off.
Saturday, October 22, 2016
The first time he saw what he took to be a long-dead ancestor he ignored it. He felt a chill for sure, but the habit, being strong, was to look away and get back to his work of filling in boxes for the Beegkeester Corporation. It was deadening work he had to admit, but not dead as in the apparition that peeked around the corner of his sight just when he grabbed his double latte -- ultra venti -- that served as breakfast. Besides, what the hell could some imagined specter have to do with him making his daily bread? He doubled down and sent off a text to his colleague, Boinker. He included a happy face and a ghost emogi just to defuse the tingle he felt somewhere down there at the base of his spine. But the creepy feeling wouldn't leave him. The eidolon rose from the pixels of his screen, surfaced the bloom of his espresso, made dates in his day planner. It pursued him. In fact it mocked him. The more he ran, the more the phantasm persisted. Avoidance wasn't working. Then, on the way home, driving his new Volkswagen Golf, he met the gaze of his nemesis in the rear view mirror. Rather that avert his gaze, however, this time he examined the eyes from the past that he had buried, hidden from himself, pushed into the shadowy recesses of his psyche. Until you see me, bring me into the light of your little world, they said, I've got you.
Thursday, October 20, 2016
Brain scans tell us that multi-tasking, as in doing more than one task at a time, doesn't exist. What the brain does do is switch from one task to another, doing each badly. And women are no better at this than men. With screen ubiquity people are doing what they do worse than they would by just sustaining a focus on one task. Kids, research has shown, can study for about two minutes before getting distracted. The skill of paying attention to what we are doing is underdeveloped. Face to face human interaction has become a dying art. Research also points to increased anxiety when we can't check in with our phones. In meetings, we don't follow what is being covered because we are looking at a screen, our brains somewhere other than here and now. Our lives are moving on line to an ongoing stream of distraction. We have become intolerant of boredom. (I am not referring to the boredom born of mind-numbing, repetitive, monotonous drudgery called modern work, but that which arises from creating a space free from distraction.) The problem here is that some things require a degree of tedium to accomplish. To be creative, we have to sit with quiet, empty, and sometimes boring "space" to discover a heretofore unknown potential. The brain then can kick into gear to produce something -- an answer to a problem, a line for a poem, an insight previously not available -- rather than merely receive or consume. It's a boredom thing.
It was the way he used words that changed things. When he thought a second before speaking, considered the options, the consequences of some, the benefits of others, the truth of all of them, he began to see the way out. He was carried in a stream of words was drowning in them. He failed to see the power they had over him. They were an unbroken chain that extended back to some imagined slight. Only when he began to tame them did they become servants to his life rather than masters of it. Only when he saw them for what they were and learned about space did they relent. Might as well complain about the rain he thought to himself as they pelted him with their insistence. When he found nothing, the blank page of here and now, only then did the story truly begin.
Tuesday, October 18, 2016
You feel like a peeled kiwi, your prickly skin removed, your underbelly exposed to the hot sun. You suck in a breath and want to bolt, run, and run, and never look back. But you hold your ground in spite of the fear, and prepare to speak the first words of the story that is your life, the one in which you might become the hero, not for your own glory, but the hope of your tribe. They are rooting for you, but are afraid too. They fear their own potential that has been canned and put on the shelf. You remind them of their complicity in framing their walls of possible, of taking what was handed to them. A chorus whispers in ambivalence: fear and hope. The trees pause in abeyance. The coyote snaps into alertness. A hawk perches to stare you down. This is it. Now or never. Life or another can down the road. Now. You die to silence and take your shot, your place on the stage.
Monday, October 17, 2016
Things weren't that bad. He had enough to eat, a bed to sleep in, comfort beyond the dreams of most of his fellow souls here on earth. If he snapped a bone, a surgeon would mend it. If his car broke down, a tow truck would haul it to a shop.
Yet, he couldn't help but notice a tug pulling him forward out of the ho-hum of good enough. He had a brother with whom he had not spoken in years beyond years. He gave up in little ways when called to cultivate joy, fell short when invited to dance the dance of intimacy.
The boundaries of his world were wide enough to accommodate a life that passed in comfort and complacency.
But he was not on fire, not appreciative of the gift of his life. So he pulled the lever of chance and dared to ask for something bigger.
As luck would have it, a doorway appeared, and it was guarded by two dogs: possibility and action taken for something bigger than yourself. Pass this way, a sign said, and you will have to cut the cords that bind your broken heart, unlock the cage that contains a crazy dancer, and drop the shackles that keep you from embracing anything larger than self-interest. It is in serving that you save yourself, become the hero of your own life. It is, as a great book says, in giving that we receive.
Beyond the first steps, he could not see where the path led, but something in him knew that his heart would light the way, if only he could turn in back on. It was only in taking a step, willing himself to have enter the domain of making a difference, having an effect, embracing his lost brother, that he would become what a man might be.
In spite of a nattering "It's too hard," and "you can't do this," and "you'll get lost, burned, beaten, and worse," he lifted his hand, and pulled open the gate.
It was time to step through the portal, take his turn at the rudder that guides this leaking vessel called Humanly Possible to steer it toward the broad and infinitely retreating horizon.
Thursday, October 13, 2016
Then there was the day when it was all different. The familiar weight that pulled you into a despair so dark that the only option was out, lifted, and you stepped into a day you thought would never come again, much less be welcome. Behind you lay a swath of broken dreams and lies. Ahead lay... what? You had no idea. The knowing, though, that nothing was there infused you with light. What was true yesterday no longer mattered and you dug into the moment with the ferocity of a badger. You lifted the moment and tossed it into the air and it squealed with delight and you took that delight and used it to rinse the poisons from your eyes and ears. You longer cared what they thought or how you looked. All that mattered was your word and your word had roots deep in what might be.
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
The path has narrowed, gotten rockier, and disappears into impossibly overgrown brush up ahead. He is tired, so leans his staff against a wall of stone, removes his pack, and finds a place to sit. His shirt is soaked through from the effort of getting this far. He is glad to be alone, not just for the solitude, but sparing others the smell of him. Bathing has not been a priority in these last hard miles. He rolls the rare smoke. Sometimes breathing is best marked by the heat and evidence of fire. He knows it's bad, but here, for his purposes, it is good. Very good. He sits with the mistakes of his life. He sees now, finally, the rotten fruit of how wrong he has been all these years. He has operated out of anger and fear and spite. The facts of it stare at him, in the clear light of utter frankness, truth. He feels shame and wants to offer up an excuse. His companion isn't having it and won't suffer bullshit. He knows that, so faces even more the fact of his actions, his convictions, his errors. It's a goddamned mess he admits. When the smoke has burned down and it is time to move on, he leaves the staff, the pack, and all that might spare him the full brunt of sensation and consequence before taking the first honest steps toward the tangle of woods ahead. He goes alone. He is not ashamed. He radiates energy, begins the long descent to the hard bedrock beneath the mud, here finally at the peak of his power.
Saturday, October 8, 2016
Rain stipples the sidewalk, the stains fading almost as fast as they appear as new, young drops make their mark. A rare October thunderstorm moves down the slope of the Santa Rita Mountains before crossing the wide alluvial fan toward the prison. The leading edge is miles away, but wind carries the scent of the coming storm. Sun still shines as the first drops fall.
The moment juxtaposes a summer in retreat and a fall gaining strength.For me, it's one of those moments of change, surprise, and wonder. The chill and simultaneous heat out here on the yard mixes magic with the routine of rec time. Inmates jog around the perimeter, play basketball, volleyball, do pull-ups, push-ups, just mill around, some of them smoking, thinking, looking at the sky. In spite of the standard orange jumpsuits, the inmates manage to strike a style stance, droopy drawer calf-length pants of the street soldier, hand-made cowboy style orange head-gear, tight muscle enhancing T-shirts. Individuals in a churning sea of orange.
I welcome the cool as I make my way across the Rincon yard toward the education building. October days can still hit the mid 90s, and today is a steamer.
I hear the intercom call out the inmates. A few of them walk to the gate of the rec yard, like school boys who wait for the opening bell. One of them, C., is the barber, and has to deliver the hair-cutting kit to a ramada where inmates line up for a trim. The races mingle, call a temporary truce, like they do in the workshop.
In mundane moments, a sliver of grace appears, even in prison.
I forget that, yet here it is. I am a witness to possibility.
We agreed last workshop that S. would have as much time as he wanted to read a long piece about realizing how much he appreciated his hard-ass of a father. His work was solid, full of rich descriptions of roof work under the tyrannical eye of a father who wanted a son who would not end up in prison.
It is another surprise -- not one I welcome -- when I find I have no copies of his draft in the tub. I rifle through all my files, and, nope, no copies. I had them before. I must have set them aside when I was packing other supplies.
Nothing to do about it. We have to move on, discuss other work.
Then S. asks if he can leave the room for a bit to speak with one of the officers. He takes my copy of the essay with him and says "Take an intermission."
The other 12 men and I sit there before slipping into some discussion about building permits, tile grout, and haiku. I tell I wrote one while standing in line as Costco. A newbie screws up his face at the thought. Haiku? Costco? What the? Someone has painted a mural on the north wall. An inmate's arm extends from the edge, and a wave builds, crests, and breaks over a distant cityscape. We speculate, interpret, argue a bit. I say it looks like what we do in the workshops.
The room is relaxed. Guard is down.
Small talk fills the room until S. returns with twelve copies of a seven page manuscript.
I stutter something like "How... where... what.... ?"
"The CO listens in sometimes. He likes what he hears. I asked him. He made the copies."
I shake my head. Disbelief, challenge to my fixed was of seeing things, robs me of speech. There are allies, in a way, out here. They see, they know, they look the other way when I pass a dictionary, a magazine, a composition book. The men come in empty and leave with possibility in the form of a pad, a pen, some examples, an assignment.
"That's a first." I am floored. This action works to bust up the stereotypes I hold of prison officers. I say so. The statement floats out there, but is absorbed by the business of the day.I have much to learn.
S. is already collating and distributing the copies. No time to philosophize.
He reads. We listen. The work is good, moving. Very good. No one talks when he finishes. We have heard about a man who had been maimed, kidnapped, abused, and who practiced tough love on his wayward son. That son, now a man, is learning to see the man his father is.
We use up our time and have to leave the room, and migrate out of the building, but the gate to the yard is locked. We wait. Minute after minute. A half hour. More.
We stand in the open courtyard surrounded by coils of concertina wire, locked doors and gates. I have no idea where the guards are. We talk. Some of the guys smoke. S. and I share frustrations at our writing. I pull a review copy of a book I am working on and give it to him.
"Read this, if you want. Bring it back if you can. You will find examples of what I am talking about in terms of story, scene, and point of view."
He files the book in his contraband brown satchel.
"You know," he says, "I try to be happy. People don't know that I have been in and out of prison since I was 16. Now I'm in for life. The only thing I have is writing. Well it's the best thing."
He says this looking away. He doesn't meet my eyes. I look away too. I want to say that the mind can be free, in a way, with work, lots of work. That, however, feels trite, a small comfort, if any.
Clouds continue to build, deepening the shadows around the big mountain to the south. It's going to pour.
I think about the officer who made copies. I think about the teachers who decorate the walls with encouraging slogans, the inmates who paint murals. I want the eyes to see the potential, the will to open to what might be. The times are seldom that I get what I want. That's my fault, I see.
There is some generosity here, inside the wire. It lives between the cracks in the sidewalk, like a seed, waiting for rain.
Friday, October 7, 2016
The doo-doo was over due to be done. The business in the tank was getting urgent. That's when I booked a date with the Honey Wagon to meet me on top of the pile that is Mount Lemmon, where I and some others have been neglecting the septic tank.
"How long has it been since your last service?" the kindly dispatcher asked me when I called about scheduling.
"Ummmm, about twenty years, maybe more," I answered, digging into the recesses of memory. "My sons were about ... two... " Way too much dawdling and unnecessary information for her, I realized. "So, that would be about twenty fooour years."
An audible sigh on her end.
"And how big is your tank?"
"My brother-in-law says it is a hundred gallons."
"Are you sure?"
"No, but I think that's it," I said."You need to know that the road is pretty bad -- steep and rutted and there is a washed-out bridge," I went on.
"We can be there tomorrow. Otherwise it will be about a week before we go back up the mountain," She said.
I was thinking about the other sewage in my life. I was procrastinating on a book, avoiding exercise, being a jerk to dear friends, trying not to think about my dad going into hospice, seeing only the weaker self-defeating parts of my nature. Living with me sometimes is a nasty business. Ugh. Why does all this have to come up now?
"I'll see you there," trying to chirp, and failing.
"The driver will call you when he gets close."
So I go up to the cabin, up the winding mountain road, in my old truck, no radio, no tape player, or any other form of distraction. Just me and my thoughts.
Yikes! I thought. I am spinning and dead-ended even though the surface of my life looks like lottery winnings. The depth of my despair at nothing was a creepy poison under my skin. Such is the strange world of depression. My inner landscape is a churning skein of serpents sometimes. I want out, want distraction, anything other than the here and now. Dealing with doo-doo isn't fun.
But it is necessary. Sometimes, one has to really look at the way things are, especially the crappy stuff. I hate to say it, but, for me, it's the way through it to the other side, the place where magic can happen.
The trees were turning their yellows, reds, and browns of October, my favorite of favorite months. Why was I so unhappy?
I get to the cabin. The cover for the septic needs uncovering. I change into my work clothes, grab a shovel, and get to work.I haven't done hard manual labor for a while and my elbows ached at the shocks of the shovel when it hit the rocks covering the tank. The going was slow and hard, but I am tenacious. The demons are right there with me. "Call about your dad. Your son is in crisis. Do something. You are not so good, in spite of what you say." My body wants to fall into the pit and just stay there, get covered up after the tank is pumped.
My reverie is interrupted by the septic guys who call. I go up to meet them at the gate.
After looking at the road, they say they can't do the job. The road is too steep, washed out, and the bridge too dangerous to drive a heavy tanker truck across. This is not going to be an easy or quick job. Like many things in life, this one is going to take some time, some effort, some attention, money.We pull back the concrete covers over the tank to see what we are up against.
"This tank is in bad shape... it's also much bigger than you thought. I'd say 500 - 1000 gallons. Not a hundred."
Why was I not surprised?
All the work to this point is a start, but not enough. I have a long ways to go. The prospect is daunting, but also a relief. Doing something might help pull me from the funk, this terrible stuck place I fall into once in a while. I have to keep moving, or the demons will win.
We take pictures and make a plan for how to get the tank pumped.
At least I see what some of the work is.
Time to get on the phone, make the call, listen for my dad's voice. Time to deal with the business left undone. Time to clean up the crap between friends, make amends.
Sometimes you have to deal with the pit before you can enjoy the sweet breeze of October.
Wednesday, October 5, 2016
"You are the type," the surgeon said, looking at me over his glasses, wagging his finger, "that I see again because he is back for a second surgery."
I nodded, contrite, wondering what, exactly, my "type" was.
"It's the older guys, 40 -50 and, in your case, up, who go out and think they can play soccer or basketball or do gym-NA-stics (his emphasis) who end up with a second surgery to repair a re-ruptured tendon. I'm just telling you..."
His words were bouncing around in my thick, hollow skull as I bounced down a trail in the Zuni Mountains on my mountain bike. Cycling, I reasoned, was fairly "safe" because there was no jumping, no cutting in front of a soccer ball, no explosive leaps, just safe round pedal strokes, right?
So there I am on this downhill section that is a rutted labyrinth of deep gullies. The trail snakes around and through them until I see where it has been cut by recent rains. I will either have to dismount or bunny hop across the gap.
Well, of course, I decide to bunny hop and lift the bike neatly over the mini defile. All well and good. Until the landing. I forgot that what goes up also comes down, sometimes hard. The shock of the landing traveled from the wheel through the frame and crank to my foot, which took a hard hit.
A bolt of pain shot up from the still healing, and quite stiff tendon through my leg and into that place where nausea originates.
I hid my grimace from my fellow velo fellows and kept rolling, hesitant to put weight on the tendon. I slowed and let them pass. They gave me looks that said "weenie" and "slacker" and "when are you going to get back in shape?"
When they had pulled ahead enough for me to just focus on my foot, I put weight on the pedal. It held. It hurt like hell, but it carried the weight. The intensity of the pain told me there was a bit of a tear, but nothing too serious. Dodged another bullet.
Slowly, easily, I found a rhythm that felt sustainable given the throbbing down there in the tendon.
It hurt for the next two hours, and blood had gathered around my heel. But I could still walk and I was not going back to visit the surgeon.
I went out on another ride and saw a chance to bunny hop a log.
Think I'll walk.
Tuesday, October 4, 2016
It starts when you slip too far into the shoes of the other man's grief, frustration, fear, and rage. You see things a tad too closely, imagine yourself in those situations. You know, the father taking a strap, the hot sidewalks of homelessness, the getting jumped, but mostly the hardening to a world that gives you no quarter. What happens then is you start to dream about days when it was all lost. And you start to lose it. You sit there in your car outside the gates and weep for the relief of being outside, knowing that men are still in there, always in there, tonight, tomorrow, the next day, the next week, the next years. Then it starts to squirm and coil inside you, to tap your energy, take over, like a parasite gone viral. It is then that you have to claw your way back to someplace far enough distant that you can fight back, breathe. You still have to believe, to stand, and to act. Yes, you still have to act. You will be tempted to quit, but that means you have lost. You learn that you cannot save anyone, but that you can marshal the strength to show up, pull from inside yourself the gifts someone might need. You give up hope that anything might change, but find the will to act anyway, and do so with a heart that you don't give away.
Do not be be deceived into thinking it is over just because the barrage has gone silent. This is a pause, not an end. You have to use this time to crawl up and out of your meager protective bunker and get your ass out into the sun where you have work to do. You don't know why or how, but some divine accident has opened up four fucking months of time for you to write what you say you need to write. The work has to happen now, before the skies again fill with the rain of commitments, of tests to grade, lessons to plan, meetings to attend, papers to grade, conferences to hold, web sites to build. If you fall back to nurse your wounds, you will be lost. You will never be able to again face yourself or forgive yourself. These are the days you have longed for, begged for, prayed for. Do not lose this opportunity. Yes, it hurts to move when you are so stiff, sore, tired, and full of the weight of grief and heavy poisons. You have to act in spite of it, to shift your gaze up and out and into the heat and cold and wind. Do not be afraid, but look to the end and feel the hopes of a hundred men behind you, dreaming that you might be one strong enough to tell the story. Lean into the years you have spent preparing for this. Remember the promise you made. Draw on the ineffable that you know waits for you the day lie down, calm in the knowledge that you did not back down, that you gave it more than you ever thought possible.
Monday, October 3, 2016
Dust blows and stings and gathers outside the door, in drifts, like snow. Every particle seems to be on its way to some other place. So much restlessness with no appreciable result other than relocation -- usually in my bed, my shoes, or my scalp. The lover that is rain, water, nourishing moisture, has left in search of something to sustain her. This dryness just seems to part of the way of things; there is no one to blame, or everyone. I see her everywhere, but am bound, paralyzed by fear. Everything longs for water, for love, a break in the dam that holds back the rushing relief of emotion, expression. The dust remembers the days when it was fed by rain, by the shade of blooming fruit. I must find a way to woo her back, woo her home. My eyes are full of the crust of sleep, body stiff, joints sore. This long sleep feels like it will never end. How did this happen? How did I get here? It began when I veered off my path because it hurt too much, was too hot to touch or hang onto. Or so I thought. Numbness was preferable to pain. Sleep walking preferable to scrabbling over the rocks of new territory. It's time to wake up. I hear thunder in the distance, a beckoning promise of consummation.
Monday, September 19, 2016
He walks into the workshop as eager to please as a cocker spaniel. Even though he is a man of twenty-three, he has the shy smile and air of innocence of a child. He is perennially cheerful, like he carries an inside joke, the punchline of which he just keeps grinning over, always fresh. I know he is a capable man on the yard, but he doesn't broadcast it in the workshops. He is respectful to a fault, and makes it a point after every workshop to thank me for coming.
T. is one of the long-time regulars. His genre is poetry, specifically love poems. He misses his girlfriend terribly and describes her in sensuous terms involving fruits, flowers, stars, incense, and crashing oceans of distance. They are flowing rivers of longing and abstraction. He can't seem to break out of it.
I push him to create a scene, to ground his work in some concrete particular. He, I think, finds that frightening, and has yet to go there.
Then one day he comes in with a Cheshire smirk and says, "I have something different today. It's the assignment you gave us, the one about showing a relationship through a scene."
I assume he is going to read a piece about his girlfriend, but when it is his turn, he details a trip he took with his father. In the account, he is sixteen, and his father takes him to a whore house in Mexico. He, contrary to usual emphases in pieces like this, omits graphic sex, but focuses instead on getting to, and crossing the border. His prose jumps with style, energy, and sensory richness.
It also takes a twist, has a silly, funny end, that embarrasses cops, specifically the Border Patrol, who can't discern the difference between deodorant residue and cocaine. I find it funny, but not terribly insightful.
After he reads I ask him if there is more he could include about what the trip was for him in terms of his relationship to his father. That was, after all, the assignment, to convey something of the nature, the qualities, of the relationship.
He says "No. There is nothing more to tell. I hadn't seen more than a few times in my life before that. I don't know anything about him. He just came to take me out to make me a man. That's it."
T. does not traffic in irony. What he says is what he means. His look when he tells me this is as honest and complete as any sentences I have heard in my life. He puts a funny face on what he has with his father, which is next to nothing.
I find the story both comic and tragic. I doubt many readers will get it without all the context, but decide to pursue publication anyway.
I file it in the category of "What might have, could have, should have, but what has never, been." That file is large. It sealed and protected by a thick wall of stories.
It's a good piece, well written. I ask him if I can submit it to the magazine.
"Sure," he says, proud to have his work considered. The truth of it disarms me. I don't know how it will fly.
Sunday, September 18, 2016
Full cart at Costco
Blueberries and bananas
Stuck in Samsara
Moon pull-up last night
Wish I could do twenty one
Fall more than season
Cat brings mouse to bed
It looks for a place to hide
Not batting practice
Kids go to school now
Sun rises cool at long last
Papers need grading
Her hair begs touching
My hands tremble with fear
Too many bills to pay
I pull a blanket
Cooler pump self-destructed
Better turn it off
Saturday, September 17, 2016
C.C. exudes the confidence of the large and strong. His dread locks extend half way down his back, and the orange jump suit barely contains the bulk of his chest, arms, and broad back. He cocks his head when he looks at me, but he defers, at least for now, to my critique of his writing.
The first drafts of his work are all about sexual conquests. In a circle of men, that's a pretty safe subject, and, to my eye, is evidence of Eve Sedgewick's "male gaze." In her thinking, men bond over talking about women. That helps us guys overcome some of our discomfort or fear of each other. There is more to her work, but this thumbnail summary gets at some of the some dynamics of the workshops. There is inertia here, cultural inertia. Prisons are extensions and distillations of inequities and injustice. The men live in a focused beam that is intensified by sexual frustration and deprivation. In a word, the subject is touchy if not taboo.
It's a tough moment when I bring up the topic of sexism in writing. C.C. and his portrayal of women is not the misogynistic degradation of "bitches" and "hos," but it does condescend. He bristles when I ask him about it.
"What do you mean, 'sexist?'" he asks.
"When you say Shaunny was a 'fine female' you reduce her to her gender rather than showing readers more about her, who she is, what she likes, or fears, what make her unique."
He thinks about that, as if, going beyond "female" is not exactly necessary.
"So if I say something about he does her hair, that'll work better?" he says, trying on the different description.
"Yes, that's going to help make her more of a character, not so flat or stereotypical."
We go with that for a while.
As an assignment, I ask C.C. to render a specific scene with her to help show not just more about how hot she was and how good he was in bed with her, but something about him, some reflection on his actions, something that might make him a bit more human, complex, something honest, in which he might not look so good.
Other men around the table nod in reluctant assent.
One says, "Yeah. Where you afraid she might say no?"
C.C. sits with that, takes a deep breath, about busts the seams of his jumpsuit, and then lets out a sigh.
"OK, I think I could do that," he says, making it something of a challenge, a competition.
He re-assumes his Alpha stance.
"I went with a chick once, who only had one breast," he said. "I gotta say, that bothered me, turned me off. Problem was I really liked her. She liked me too. Until I saw her topless, that is. Then I went with another girl. Something about that didn't feel right, but I felt like I had to go with what got me off better. I just couldn't see eff'in some chick with only one tit."
"Now that is a story," I said. "Let's hear it, your side of it, how you worked that conflict out."
"OK," He said. "OK."
Thursday, September 15, 2016
"You'll have to vouch for him -- work, place to live, awareness of parole obligations -- if he's going to leave the halfway house," he said.
He was the manager of the Federal Bureau of Prison's halfway house. He was a big guy, bored and weary. He looked like he had seen it all and then some. Nothing could surprise him.
I felt like passing him a hundred dollar bill just to see how he would react.
The place was sad. Grimy. Defeated men and women wandered around the "campus" with heads down, feet shuffling. Folding chairs sat in the sun next to doors that opened onto a parking lot. It had been a hotel at one time.
The place next door advertised itself as the "No Tel Motel."
We were in a tough part of Tucson, not the best place, I thought, for a halfway house for men and women tying to get away from a life on the streets.
"I can do that," I said. "He'll be working for a magazine as an editor, and he has a guest house to rent on the east side."
He looked at me with an expression, "who do you think you're kidding? This guy is an addict, a hard-core, a ticking bomb," but handed over the paper, a kind of contract, for me to sign.
Here goes, I thought, I'm putting myself on the line here. If he falls, I may be on the hook for something, though I don't know what.
I pulled my pen out of my pocket and signed. He notarized the document and stamped it.
"I'll make you a copy."
As I folded it, J. came in the door with a question on his face. I nodded. He left to get his stuff -- a box of clothes, books, and a blood-red electric guitar. The guitar stuck out the box at a rakish angle, barely balanced, threatening to cascade out of the box onto the cold concrete.
I held open the chain-link gate so J. could squeeze through.
This was much bigger than leaving a half-way house. We were going out into the free world. He would be sleeping on his own tonight. No cellie, no counts, no flashlights in your face in the middle of the night, no screaming down the block, no watching your back.
He looked sheepish. unbelieving.
He blinked in the bright, knife-edge light of a December dawn.
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Mr. G. stands like an Aztec fireplug when it is his turn to read. He takes his feet after pushing in his chair, looking around the circle, and taking a deep breath. He gathers up his hard-won dignity and pulls authority up from somewhere deep inside and feeds it into his voice. He is breaking new ground.
It is the first time he has read in the workshop. Yes, he has been attending, listening, and watching, for several months. I think he has been sizing me and the other men up. He has three large dots tattooed above his eye brows. Looking at him, I find it hard to focus on his eyes; I lift my gaze to those strange dots.
"I've never read in front of people before," he says.
I nod and tell him he is brave. Other men nod the knowing nod, having been there before.
"I was in the Mojave Unit when I met a man who thought he was a woman," he began.
He went on to tell the story of Misha, a "maricon," who had suffered greatly in prison, and who now was standing alone after a gathering of a church group.
Mr. G. had found religion in prison. At first it was evangelical Christianity but had morphed into a kind of Aztec pantheism. He was a devotee, a disciple, who lived and breathed his creed.
He read on, how, after the Bible study about loving your neighbor, the men had broken into groups, leaving Misha outside on his own.
Mr. G. approached him, struck up a conversation. He wasn't shy.
"So many people feel that homosexuality is the result of sexual abuse as a child. I was abused. I am not asking you about this without knowing what that is like."
The room went silent as the men around the table locked onto Mr. G.'s narrating. Suddenly the air went out of the room.
"I was wondering if your liking men came from an experience like that," he read, the tone one of curiosity rather than condemnation.
"Misha said that yes, he had been abused, raped several times, but that he did not attribute his attraction to men to the abuse."
Here Mr. G. pauses, takes a breath, and began to reflect.
"I have always been one to shun men I called 'putos' or 'maricones.' I wanted to beat them up, to shove them into a corner. But talking to Misha I saw that he was different, and had a right to be different."
Some of the men in the workshop shifted in their seats. Mr. G. was approaching a taboo topic, and it was uncomfortable, prickly.
"So I here to say, to stand and say, that I respect Misha for who he is."
Knock me over with a feather.
I need to stand back here to state that I am not trained as a therapist, that I do not encourage inmates to write about their demons or their wounds. That said, I don't forbid or discourage their doing so either. I am interested in the writing, and if the writing grows out of a painful moment, then so be it.
Mr. G. absorbs the applause, flushes a little, takes most subtle of bows, and then says something that takes me even more by surprise.
"Since I started writing in this class, I have looking at things that have scared me all my life. I am finding that if I write about this stuff, it bothers me less. I've been having fewer nightmares lately. I feel pretty good."
This triggered some of the other inmates to jump in with experiences of their own.The talk sounded something like a men's support group, but I didn't mind.
I thought of Terry McMillan, a teacher of mine when I was in graduate school. She said "If you feel blood pop out your forehead when you are writing, you'll know you're on to some good stuff."
Well said, Terry. Well said.
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
N. has shaved his head again. He has also bulked up over the last couple of months. Crude tattoos sprout from his forearms. He walks with more of a swagger, a don't-fuck-with-me cockiness. When he joins the workshop, he first scans the tables to see who else is there. Most often, he loosens up before giving me a nod and smile of recognition. Sometimes, though, he sits outside the circle, back against a wall.
N. is twenty-two years old, bright, interested -- deeply interested -- in writing screen plays. He has written a few that he has entered in the Pen Prison Writing Contest. So far, he has not won or placed. He keeps trying though, keeps knocking on the door.
N. is in on drug charges, like many of the other young men in the writing workshop. He grew up poor in Phoenix, the only son of a single mom. He learned early on to fight, to hold his ground. Raves and the fast life of ecstasy dealing proved too much to resist.
He should, in my view, be in college. If he were at the University of Arizona, he would likely be one of the star students in film or writing courses. He works hard at his craft, taking it far more seriously than even my best university students. He reads well. He devours the books on writing that I bring in.
He should, in my view, be in college. If he were at the University of Arizona, he would likely be one of the star students in film or writing courses. He works hard at his craft, taking it far more seriously than even my best university students. He reads well. He devours the books on writing that I bring in.
I know because he cites them when he makes a comment on another man’s work. He is a fine critic, with a good ear.
I mention N. because he is a case study in what is lost when a country locks up too many of its men and women. He has become invisible to the “free world.” He is losing something of himself that he may never again recover. He wages a losing battle to feed the fires of humanity that burn strong in him. I ask myself how one might feed that humanity. What would it take to keep the burning, to add fuel to the flame? All I can offer is language and its ability to express some human truth, to ask a shared human question. I can bring in words and ideas that may or may not be enough to offset the soul hungry maw of prison. He needs dignity, fire to create, a chance. He is hanging by a thread, a thread of what he believes as humanly possible. What is "humanly possible" rests on what he imagines as "human," and what is human is composed in his experience, his imagination, and what he sees in books, film, music, and the storm of discourse that is language. Language holds the key to what he will imagine as possible.
He is one of over two million and counting of Americans who are locked up, which is more than any country on Earth. We are champion incarcerators. But it's killing us, even if we don't know it, especially because we don't know it.
Money from education has decreased about as much as funding for prisons has increased. Incarceration cost more that drug treatment, and is far less effective. Prison serves to perpetuate poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and organized crime. It makes our nation a less desirable place to live.
He is one of over two million and counting of Americans who are locked up, which is more than any country on Earth. We are champion incarcerators. But it's killing us, even if we don't know it, especially because we don't know it.
Money from education has decreased about as much as funding for prisons has increased. Incarceration cost more that drug treatment, and is far less effective. Prison serves to perpetuate poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and organized crime. It makes our nation a less desirable place to live.
Prison, in this man's America, strives to punish rather than rehabilitate, crush rather than foster, reduce to the lowest common denominator rather than enlarge an offender's humanity. This punish and let-them-rot mission of mass incarceration produces monsters rather than fully functioning human beings. The system operates with clinical, if not fully thought through, efficiency.
Prisons exacerbate chronic social ills; they fan the flames of racism, reinforce a toxic form of masculinity, perpetuate cycles of poverty and violence, deprive inmates of contact with nature, and actually strengthen organized crime by letting gangs run the show on the yard. Education programs have been eliminated; vocational opportunities have disappeared. The prison complex in Tucson used to grow much of its own vegetables in a large garden that is now barren, scraped dust.
Prison culture is racist, misogynistic, ultra macho. Prison populations are the throw-aways of society: the poor, the people of color, the under-educated, the marginalized, desperate, and mentally ill. The message of prison is one of despair more often than hope.
But the greatest damage prisons exact on the men and women unfortunate enough to end up there is that it deprives them of voice, removes them from the horizon of social visibility. They become forgotten ghosts to all but those who make the trip to visit or volunteer.
N. is trying. He wants to write. He wants to find his voice. He wants to learn. He wants to be heard, to be seen, to find out who he might become, given half a chance.
His work is good, and he has published some poems, stories, and essays. He has explored how his identity as a man is tied to combat; he wrote an extended essay about his father that was published in the prison workshop literary magazine. That might give him some confidence, open a door to another possibility. His learning to express his struggles, his gaining a awareness of the forces aligned against him might provide a larger world of possibility. Reading and writing can illuminate and expand his horizons beyond the perimeter of razor wire. If he accepts prison life as all there is, he is doomed.
Odds aren't good, but he is young enough to learn to dodge a punch, absorb a blow or two, especially if has vision to see what's coming.