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.