Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Roaring Back


In the old days this body bounced back from bumps, bruises, and fractures. These days it wants time off to think about things, like going on strike. It has, in other words, served me well but now sputters and coughs when I try to rev what little engine I have. Unfortunately the brain has not caught up with the realities that come with over sixty years of hard use. It still sees a long bike ride under extreme heat warnings as a kind challenge, something to do before a run, or pick-up soccer game. But then the pilot pulls on the throttle only to find an old man sitting in basement next to a furnace that will keep nobody warm. Maybe tomorrow things will clear up, come roaring back, making a silk purse out of this sow's ear of stiffness and aching joints and fog.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Nobody Reads This Stuff Anyway


A grouch has to say something once in a while just to clear the air between his hairy ears. I can't blame anyone for avoiding those moments like the plague that they are. The rants waft out there into the ethers and pop like toxic gas bubbles. Another human blowing off stream. My father used to wander the house in his threadbare bathrobe at two in the morning and mutter curses at whom I do not know. The cat went with him anyway, hoping to get some kibble, or a weekend pass to the back yard. Smart cookie that cat. That aspect of his way of being did not make the top ten list in his eulogies at the recent memorial service. Lots of other great memories did. And it is the forgotten pieces that I worry about, the ones that roll into corners like lost marbles, only to be found later by the next generation, or to be overlooked, a hopeful, unheralded radio wave traveling through deepest space.

Back in T-Town


Four hundred plus miles in hundred and ten heat in the little truck and I am here again in the bosom of the Old Pueblo. Going to run under the radar so I get things done that I need to get done: pay bills, fix the bird fountain, clean up all the dead bugs around the house, and cuddle with my cat Simone. Need to change the oil and sing Hail Marys too so I get back to work in one piece. This grumpy teacher has about had it though. It seems people have had their brains boiled by the heat wave. Well, my brain has been boiled is what I'm trying to say. I have withdrawn and pulled the shades. I hoped that life would work out, but you know how that goes. Looks like the tether holding me hither has popped like a tendon that snaps just after the ball you kicked sails high and off target through the summer air.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Could Be Worse


Yeah, it's a hundred and sixteen out there, your dog couldn't rouse himself if the house were on fire, and you haven't slept well for a month, but, hey, the circles you carve as you travel around the drain are still pretty wide. Might as well sit back and enjoy the crazy ride. I mean, your life isn't a total wreck. And the wheels of the thing are still spinning, even if it is on its back. How about a little gallows humor? At least you were right about putting up solar panels big enough to take in the heat and make something good and true and beautiful out if it. Keep going in that vein, even as the momentum pulling you close and down increases.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Couldn't Wait to Get Out


The small town I grew up in, I thought, was a backwater, a blinder, a coffin, a ball and chain. I plotted my escape during long liturgical rituals of Lutheran church services. While we read the Nicene Creed, I dreamed of snow-capped mountains, clear trout streams, and low humidity. But more than the places, I wanted a bigger horizon to my little mental maps. There was something out there that I just had to taste. So I left. I hitchhiked out west reading Nietzsche and Pirsig. I dabbled in the virtues of hoboism and poverty and sleeping in bushes. I can't say I found an answer, but I did lose some innocence. I have to find my way back now to things like common courtesy, contentment, the joy of rain. An old man, I can no longer rely on my body to carry me forward. I didn't blow it, exactly, but didn't gather much that I want to pass on those looking, like I was, for something better.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Midnight Blue


The hotel window framed the closed curtain with flashes of lightning. The storm outside was a real ripper, one of many that were part of a cold front moving across the Midwest. In Nebraska, tornadoes made their way across wheat fields. Here, the storms just lit the skies and rattled the windows. It was not as bad as I thought it might be. Conversations earlier tonight with siblings echoed in my head. So many memories, so much variety of perspective on what our family had been, who my parents were. I realize I have only a tiny picture and have jumped to a story about them that falls far short of capturing them in all their contractions and confusions. Left unanswered, my stories were too conclusive, dismissive even. So I listened to the rain, the words bouncing off the walls of my mind, and looked out at the storm. What I mistook for black was actually blue: deep, resonating, midnight blue.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Bear Memorial --- Round Two


Whether these trips are out of my life or back into it, I haven't decided. Whichever is the case, they are a big jump, and I have to work hard to make the leap from my life "out there" in Arizona and New Mexico and the one "back here," the small town in Wisconsin where I came of age. The smells of mowed grass, the feel of summer air, the thick and sultry greenness all kick-start emotions and memories I have yet to make peace with. My gut is twisted into skeins of anxiety by the calm that pervades this place. Though, they are gone, my mother and father accompany me on my walks, my ruminations, my dreams. For whatever reason, I am drawn back to them, pulled up close in the hopes that I might better see the still pulsing complexity of them and the marks they left on me. I am submerged in this place, deprived of air, and have to learn to breathe under the water of memory. Take a breath, brother, take a breath. You can learn to see what before was too hard to digest, to forgive, to put to rest.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Shelter


It seemed a simple thing: just a place to be safe, get out of the wind and rain. A haven to crawl into when things got hairy and bad. I gave up wandering for comfort, for companionship. I just wanted someone to love, to care for. Couldn't help myself. But when sublime love struck my aching emptiness like a hammer, that safe place became a cage. It must be an animal thing, wanting safety and freedom at the same time. Can't live with it and can't live without it, but more and more I just need a safe place to break down.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Another Moon


A fat moon pulled its way up and out of the juniper branches last night as cedar gnats had their way with soft and warm spots under my T-shirt. Little shits. You think they could at least ask before reaching up under my shirt and sawing off their half-pound of flesh. But the moon. Oh, the moon... Who cares about temporary itching when the moon rips to shreds everything you thought might last forever? It was like a hurricane: cruel and so intense nothing could stand in its path. That's the way it is now. The days slip away before I can find the energy to rise and enjoy them. All is falling away.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Reckoning


“Did you use your time well?” he asked. Not the question I was hoping for in this place where honesty is the only option. “Well…” I began. You can guess where it went from there. I had to admit that I failed to act when dreams hung in the balance, that I took the easy way more often than not, and that I died not having done what it was I wanted and knew I had to do. “So,” he began, “you will return.” Not again I thought. How many times do I have to do this before I get it right? As many as necessary comes back as the answer we all know on some level. Here is where things get thick. This life walk has me jiggered, and the easy way is calling me again. I look for excuses and find plenty. I’m too old. My brain and body both are failing. I don’t know what to do, can’t figure it out. But that’s the point. I have to keep moving, even when I feel I can’t. Tough luck, sucker. It’s time to break through.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Downtime


Whew! This body feels light. It also feels sore, stiff, tired, and beat. But all of those are the good versions of discomfort. The stress levels have dropped back down from red extreme to green mild. It's good to get your butt out of Dodge once in a while, to cut back on the email, the meetings, the web nonsense, and digital multi-tasking myths that are making us all crazy. Better to watch ravens and jack-rabbits and to feel the wind and sun. Time to drink it in. Time to fall into the openness of less, the possibility in nothing better than the here and now. Balm. Tonic. Fresh air. Remember this when it is gone.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Rending the Fabric


So he was tormented to the point where he shot himself in the garden while his fiance went for a walk down the road and up to the barn. That was a few days ago. She heard the shot and thought he had seen a rattlesnake or some other vermin. At the time it wasn't a concern. It was only when she found him lying there in the garden that the shock set in. He had a beautiful, big home, a new Subaru, a comfortable retirement, great health, a beautiful woman, opportunity to do whatever he wanted, and some nasty demons. In that latter trait, the two of us had things in common. I don't know how much he  knew my proximity to darkness though. The demons, in his case, won out. The ripples of his sudden exit rolled out down the road, a nuclear blast of incomprehension. News like that travels fast, and we neighbors went into overdrive to answer the question of why. Truth is we'll never really know the answer to that one. No one can be in the heart and head of someone who has to check out leaving the rest of us to mend a tear in the fabric so frayed it will never close.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Don't Know Jack


He wanders over at dawn and then again at dusk. He is handsome with long ears and a black tail. His long-legged dignity and fine black trim along the edge of his ears set him apart from the other bunnies that hop through the 'hood. He is the first jack-rabbit to inhabit the territory of the New Mexico digs. Yes, there have been many cotton tails, but no honest-to-God jack rabbits. I like him, but have not yet gotten to know him. He's an enigma that keeps his distance, so far anyway. I am going to get some rabbit food and set it out on his rounds. Then I will sit on the deck and wait. My hope is that he'll pause for a bite and maybe open up to some visiting, a chat of sorts, between one jack and another.  I am, after all, not much of a real whatever, instead wander into life in some alternative, dabbling, peripheral approach: jack teacher, jack writer, jack jock, jack-of-all-trades, and on and on. Maybe he can help me figure things out, give me some insight into how I might enter this next, odd, unknown chapter of my life. We jacks have to stick together you know.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Hardscrabble


The place is dry, windy, sun-baked, and subject to frigid, long winters. Harsh, you might say. But it is also wide open, empty, mostly quiet, except for the wind, and full of nothing. That's just what I need, I guess. It's what is here. In this big empty, I have been working. Hard. My legs, back, and arms are beat tired. I am sunburned, covered with fine mortar dust. I have grout under my finger nails, blisters on my knees. The moon is waning and it peers into the window right before dawn with its sharp scythe coldness. This life is about work. Why has it taken me so long to figure that out?

Monday, May 22, 2017

Up the Ladder, Over the Railing, and Through the Window


Well, the best way to do things sometimes is the hard way. Actually, some people say there is only the hard way and the wrong way. I don't know about that, but I do know that I am tiled into a corner and the only way out is through the small window, over the railing on the deck, and then down the ladder to the tile saw and the mortar mixer. What a sixty-something is doing in this situation is something of a mystery. Can't wait for quitting time and a cold beer. Someone will get to enjoy the fruits of my labor if I don't make it out of this predicament. Neck deep in it . Neck deep. Lift your leg out the window and keep moving. It will be over soon enough.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Walking the Dog


It pulls to the left, sometimes. But then you change the sheet of sandpaper and it pulls to the right. Whichever way it pulls, it's better not to fight it. You have to go with it if you want to make it through the day. The rasping roar of the thing makes talk impossible, so you just think as you dance around the floor with the hundred-pound power sander. It pushes a fine mound of dust as it moves across the floor. You want that dust to fill in the cracks. The wood has gotten hard from so many years in the sun, so the going is slow. You will be at this most of the day, and your arms, back, legs will be exhausted when you finally fall into bed tonight. You should be wearing ear plugs, eye protection, and using a respirator, but you are not. You don't really care about your body, but try to do a good job on the floor. The grain that rises from beneath the degraded and abused wood is beautiful, fresh and young. You like that. You keep going just to see more of it. You can't help it and don't really know why you are here or what you are doing. Lean into it, friend, lean into it.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Klutz


You are leaving the cafe when your book bag snags a chair and sends it clanking to the floor. Faces look up at you in alarm. You bend over to pick up the chair and your glasses fall from your pocket. You reach for them as the bag rolls off your back, opens, and dumps your papers, phone, planner, and books into a pile on the floor. All eyes are on you. Which to fix first? Glasses, chair, pile? You decide to do the chair, but drop it in your hurry. Faces form pity mixed with contempt. Who is this yahoo? You smile and try to get things right. Chair up. Books back in bag. Glasses in pocket. You turn to walk out only to knock over your bike as you try to unlock it. Guess we're not in Kansas anymore.

One Thing at a Time


Truck springs sag with the weight of a cargo well over the little pickup's capacity. Then the trailer gets hitched, and it sags even more. It and I are alike in that way: too much to carry around. Three hundred and fifty miles from here, the truck will be done, unloaded, sent off to the pasture to rest. My load will hang there with me, invisible to all but you know who. It threatens to break me. I can't think about it, but do one thing at a time. Just one more thing. Then the next thing. If it cracks, it cracks, and I'll deal with it. But that will be then; this is here now. In some other life you might sleep, you say.

Flowing Hair Sunrise


Water drains from the pots hanging up there on big hooks fastened to the roof beam over the porch. You are standing tip-toe on the top step of a ladder too short for the job. Precarious errand for which the plants thank you. You move so unimpeded that I marvel at the ease of it. I wish that I could travel through the day with such grace. I drag my cinder block mood into the smallest undertaking, snarling and pissing the whole way. The sun breaks over the horizon behind you, blinding but for the shadow of you. It promises to be a rare and cool day here in the soon-to-be simmering desert. So much to do: packing, people, plans, multi-modal juggling. I don't know if I can do it all, but from right here, it's all just a prospect waiting to be composed as it occurs. All is waiting in the arms of grace. The blessing begins.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Stars

You lie there on your back looking up at the stars, music wafting from the stage, swirling around you, a feather massage. Oh, your eyes go elsewhere too, of course, but you close them so you can protect yourself a bit. You will be traveling in the dark soon, no light to penetrate the night. It will seem like a long trip, and, surprisingly, you will feel fear. Not to worry, you will keep moving and get there eventually, but now, right now, you take what you can, eyes and ears having to be enough in the face of a hunger that knows no boundary. At least the stars understand, distant, churning with fusion, across so much dead and frozen space.

Even the Choice Is Going


You can always choose, you told yourself. That is, you have the opportunity to engage, say yes, do the right thing, because you can, or not. But what happens when you can't? Then, even the choice goes away. It doesn't matter anymore what you decide because you don't have what it takes to follow through. Now, with all the time in the world to write or paint or sing your sad effin' songs, you can't come up with two brain cells to rub together enough to do the deed. What you get is fog: bland, sometimes angry, banks of fog. And tiredness. It's a slow slide at first and you can see that you are going down, but even that will fade soon enough. Then you will just be sitting there, nothing going on, not even the memories of days when you said no.

Steeper Pitches


You fear that you will have to dismount and walk as you struggle up the last steep pitch of the South Mountain hill climb. This time trial you have done before, but with far better speed if not less pain. You have dug as deep as you can dig, and it is not enough. Or is it? Standing on the pedals, you realize, makes it possible to eat up the last yards of the incline. Your heart rate is not as high as it used to go, and it seems that blood just doesn't carry the oxygen that is used to. You have been fighting up this mountain for the last half hour. You lost count of how many have passed you, younger riders, for sure, but a few older ones too. The loss is undeniable now. You see it again in the numbers. But you show up. Yes you show up until you no longer can. Lean into it, you old bull. You've done your thing. Time to let it go. If you have to walk it, you will throw it in. You bought one last ticket. Soak it up. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Passing Ships


One horizon shrinks while another expands, takes hold of the All of you. You want so much to possess the gift just as it is being pulled from your grasp. No amount of grip or strength of you can keep this from happening. All you can do is watch, stare, drill into the moment with every fiber of you, and then grieve. Howl for what will never be, for the golden blessing of having found your moment, having won the bet that could never be won, for stumbling onto the mother lode. Only it's not yours to own. It asks of you what you no longer have to offer. Tough luck that one.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Thought You Had a Bad Case of It


Leaning up against the door of your broken-down pickup truck minding your own business one evening, you got slapped silly by the rising moon, made kindling for heat you could never understand. Exactly why this happened you couldn't say, but nothing, and I mean nothing, after that was the same. Your insides got pulled up out your throat leaving you all upside out, exposed for the world to see. Well, that was just the beginning. You were a nova in the deep and frigid darkness of space. Life went from a bland gray to screaming technicolor brilliance. The phases of the moon only fanned the flames of your madness.There was no remedy, no cure, no hope for this terminal condition, so you wandered and wondered and scribbled, fire blazing away down there, the walls of your safety reduced to ashes. Then, one day, you got dropped on the corner, spit out the other side, cold as a clinker. Truck still there, sun coming up, moon gone over the horizon. You pulled down your hat as if nothing had happened, the story burning your insides, a thing between you and you. As if. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Earthshine

Shadows sometimes fill with light, bounced as it were, off an otherwise dark body. Last December, for example, light from the earth shone on a setting moon. The moon's shadow side was light against the dark backdrop of stars. One could see the spherical fact of it, learn the impossibility of it, up there, round lunacy suspended in space, half in light, half in earth-lit shadow -- just like you. So just being where you are, you might redirect light into a place that would otherwise miss the possibility of you, the un-alloyed occurrence and chance of you, the dropped chain of the wonder of you.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Back to the Work


Well, you finished one. It sits there on display, but nobody wants it, even as a gift. It is what you thought you wanted to do, felt compelled to make. And there, in the flesh, panting, covered with afterbirth, it rests, the best you have, but less than what you hoped it might be. You wanted it to speak so beautifully that others would find in it what drove you to write it. Well, it looks like that isn't going to happen, right now anyway. So where do you go? What do you do? I'll tell you what. You can't leave, so you go back in, listen some more, and do it again. And again. You keep sharpening that stone until you can shave with it. You will work up the point where you collapse, or that place where you're done, that point where they find in your work a touch so true and cruel that they weep with joy. After all, there is nowhere to go but where you have to be.

Snow in May


Two days ago we broke a hundred degrees for the first time this year. Last night it snowed on the mountain. We got cold rain down here in the valley. Clouds trailed fringes of rain as the sun shone in beneath them on our way to Phoenix. The light, clouds, shadows and wet roads made for beautiful vistas and dangerous driving. Kyle rested in the passenger seat as we made our way up to his graduation from the Advanced Course. He seemed better to me. It was hard to believe that just a few days ago he was dead set against taking this next step. He maintained that his life was over, that he had nothing to look forward to or to live for. Now he has finished another chapter in the book of getting his life moving, making it something that he loves. I don't know where it will take him or what he will do with his life, but the weather can change from summer to winter in a day. Maybe Kyle is off on a new tangent. His adult life is just beginning.


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Puttin' It Out There


Dear Deputy Wardens --

As directors of separate units at the Arizona State Prison Complex -- Tucson Unit, you know the importance of providing inmates with meaningful opportunities to learn and to improve their prospects of success after they are released. One of the foundations of success outside prison walls is the ability to understand emotions and to be able to communicate effectively. This is a life-long undertaking for all of us, but is especially important for inmates, who, very likely, have been the victims of some form of trauma: physical, emotional, psychological, or economic. Inmates over-represent marginalized Americans in that they are more likely to be black, brown, poor, drug-addicted, victims of violence, or mentally ill. Simply put, they need work on expressing themselves more than most. In the creative writing workshops, inmates follow the need to express themselves into some dark places. You might be surprised how many of them write about parents and the need to understand what went wrong with how they were raised. Beyond parents, there are the gangs, the failures at school, work, love, and, of course, the stupid mistakes and bad decisions. Most of them want, deeply, to better themselves. I see them wanting to get "complete," to move on into a future that might be different from the past that landed them in prison. Writing with a group of other men can be a powerful catalyst to become aware of both where they are and where they want to go. While not overtly a therapeutic practice, writing can be a vehicle to help inmates imagine a life beyond the one they have lived so far. Yes, it's highly unlikely that inmates will become professional creative writers. That said, the skills they develop can make the likelihood that they will be able to focus, learn, and persevere in other vocational training. Now, the men have to want to do this, and not many, in a larger context, do. The men who show up are rare in that way. It takes real courage to face one's demons, but the benefits might be beyond measure. It is for these reasons that I ask for your support in opening new workshops in other units at the Tucson Complex.

Sincerely,

A Volunteer

Too Smart


She saw things others didn't. When she spoke about what she saw, people laughed and then looked away. She felt wounded and lonely. People don't like to hear from others about their conscience. Their sense of fairness and doing the noble thing was buried long ago, and they did not want to remember or to think about it. Her sense of right and wrong was a bit too developed for the rules of compromise. Her life was a walking bruise. She wanted so much to be like them: apathetic, jaded, smug. Some lifetimes are like that, I guess, and those who suffer are only admired after they die.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Not Exactly an Ode


His copper-top chop doo would cost most of his electorate a week's wage, but he's all about the look, all about Narcissus, Thanatos, ignorance, and hostility to fact. He has his hand in your pocket and a gun to your back. Better not fight because he might pull the trigger and you won't be able to afford the hospital bill. He wants your sons to fight his sandbox spats with Kim Jong, your daughters to be comfort women for winners. But don't fret, his effect is good for investors, even if you never see a dime of their profits re-invested in your rust belt town. He's a capital guy. His mask is bombast and hyperbole. You fell for it. Gotta do something with being pissed off at the billionaires who have been fleecing you since Reagan. Grab 'em by the you-know-what and keep the coloreds from climbing over the wall he says with crocodile tears for the poor-black-dispossessed. He shovels resentments into the furnace of fear as he grins with the other dead white guys while he slides another lie onto the plate that you keep eating off of. Sooner or later you're going to realize he's serving you shit, that his words are dipped in it. But, hey, he calls it greatness, the kind that never was. He's the one you thought you wanted.

Testimony


Yes, I swear to tell the truth, the whole of it, and nothing but. I am here to stand and deliver what it was I was supposed to deliver. Now, what that is has been something of an unknown until I began to listen. It was a moving target and was behind some kind of curtain, but there as certainly as death. I knew it better when I was a kid. Back when I was silly full of fun and life, I knew. But then I forgot. I became shy and serious and a know-it-all. I did not want to be hurt, so pulled back from love and pain. I did. I admit it. I wanted out more than a few times. I still do, but for different reasons. I will not be a burden. Of that I am certain. But back to what is true. If I am honest, I am not all that honest. I adapt and get by. But lately I can't seem to keep up. It's time to put what I need to say together before it's too late.Then, I guess, it won't matter so much anymore. It was the words, I say. The words. If I leave anything, it's a plea to watch your words. Don't use them as weapons or to cover up the truth. Use them to shine light, to dissolve barriers, to reveal love. With that, I'm good.

How To Get Stuff Done


First you have to figure out where the hell you are when you open your eyes. After careful reconnoitering, the next thing is to identify what day it is. You'll have to remember, if you can, what you did yesterday. Focus. Think. Maybe check your list that you made and left on the kitchen counter or stuck to the fridge. By now, you're up, so you can make a cup of Joe and wipe the sleep from your eyes. Try to prioritize. No, sex is not the only thing to think about today. You still have a job, you know. But what is it that you are supposed to be doing? That is the ninety-five dollar question that just can't seem to find an answer. Thank God classes are over and you don't have to meet them. Now that would be a stretch. What you do have to do is enter all the scores for the papers students have written. Then you need to submit all that. Yes, that's what you have to do today. Grades! The other stuff -- booking flights for the memorial service in Wisconsin, getting prison work typed up, packing for the New Mexico construction projects, cleaning up the house, can all wait for now. So get your mind out of the gutter and pull on your pants. Get out the door and cover your ass so they don't fire you, yet anyway.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Fading


You are at your limit, breathing so hard you are gasping. Oh, but you are slow, so slow. The road creeps by beneath the wheels of your racing bike on this climb up a mountain you know so well you could trace it in your dreams -- every curve, rise, sign-post, and pothole. You know this road like the body of your lover. Better, maybe, but... something. Yes, you say, you have been here many times. You know this. You tell yourself again that it's OK. And today is different. There is something off, not right. For one, you can't seem to breathe, but it's more than being out of shape. You look at the familiar handlebar tape, the computer, the wheel, the stem, and, they are different.  They are less there. You can't seem to grasp what is happening. You go in and out, and, suddenly, it is new, like you just got there, even though you know you have been riding for over an hour. You rely on habit to keep you going. It is a blessing that you have done this so often you don't have to really adapt, learn, or think much about it. You are not completely the pilot here. It bugs you, this sense that you are losing something, like a grip on things. You ignore it and keep going, hoping the sensation will pass, which it does, sort of. You have to admit that you feel lost more often than not.

Dry Wind


Curtains of powdery dust race across the complex. I'm waiting for the bus, and have to keep a grip on the tub so the cover doesn't blow off, suddenly cargo of the sprinting veils dancing in the big, open field between the yards. The ground has been scraped bare for decades, and the dryness of early summer makes the fine particles light enough to be picked up by this stiff wind. A high cloud of it has blocked the mountains from view. From here it looks orange, but to someone looking through it toward the sun, it will be heavy, sinister umber. Drifts of the floury dust have formed in the corners of the entry way. A fine film has filled the sink, the counters, the inside and tops of the urinals. The floor of the visitor area is covered with mini dunes that grow as I watch. I leave tracks as I cross through the metal detector on my way to the car. The wind buffets the little car as veils of dust trail across the highway. Ahead of me, I can see that a fire has started somewhere in the mountains to the south. I can taste and feel the grit of particulate on my teeth. Inmate cells will collect and hold the dust until this hot blizzard passes. I can't wait to get away from the boiling, dirty clouds.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Lunatics, Lay-Abouts, and Malcontents


Nobody wants to do the dishes or fix the septic system but they are quick to throw a party or blather on about art. If you fit in with the slacker vibe, you are golden. But if you push the river by calling a bum a bum you better watch out. That laid-back hippie will stab you in the back. He'll call you a bully and tell you that he's going to put a stop to your telling it the way it is. Of course, this doesn't apply just to hippies and slackers but to the high-flying "winners" out there too. Not many are strong enough to look at bad behavior, hypocritical thinking, or bogus mean-spirited sniping. No, they won't come right out and tell you they are going to get you. Instead they go behind closed doors, build their grenades, lob them when you aren't watching, and then go back into hiding. Until the next time.

Friday, May 5, 2017

What People Say When I Am Gone


Yeah, I know. It's a bit morbid, but I guess it's worth considering while I can still think. Contrary to what some of you might predict, I want to be remembered for little things, like that I smelled like soap and hard work. Whether or not I actually smell like soap is only part of the hope. I want to be remembered that way. I also want to be remembered for doing what I said I would do. Now, I have a lot of work still to complete in this area if people might actually say that. I guess I have to start now. I want people to say that I was an animal, not as in "he was an extreme athlete," though that would be nice, but as in he had hair, was warm blooded, liked to mate (a lot), and ate when he was hungry. As an animal, I didn't see myself as somehow "higher" than other animals -- like cats, dogs, bears, and guinea pigs. I pooped and farted and peed and probably took more away from the world than I needed to take. For that I am sorry. I hope they say, correctly, that I was a fool. I hope they say, because they got something, that I was wise. I don't want them to say I knew what I was doing, but I do hope they say I knew what I wanted, even if I messed up. Time to get to work and to buy some soap. Time's a wasting.

Humans Are a Work in Progress


When you embraced the error that you, and others, are solid, immutable, and locked into a story written when you were afraid, you forgot that you and they are really a river of stars. That error becomes like iron, when, in fact, you are motion, energy, light, and full of space waiting to be occupied with love. Because you composed the fallacy when you didn't know better, you believe it will be that way always, that others, too, are bound up in a moment of inference and conclusion. You believe you are wrong, unworthy, imperfect, that you don't matter. That what you do doesn't matter. Remember neither you nor they are that slip of weakness. Do you have to be responsible for your actions? Absolutely. Should the consequences of mistakes be permanent? The flowing river of the past has moved on. You really have only the fluid motion of a passing now. Do not make the mistake then of fixing a moment that was as what will forever be. But turn your eyes instead to your next step, your next word. It is here that you can rewrite the script of who you are, how you might live. Deliberate; focus; choose how you will place your foot; and point your actions toward the imagined possibility of who you really are, who you are already becoming. You will know the way when all you see is wide open nothing that it is up to you fill with all that you were afraid to give away. When you dissolve into a joy born of generosity, you will touch peace, find forgiveness.But you still have to write it down and then put it into motion.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Forward


The wreckage of the last couple of years recedes in the rear view mirror as you motor out of town, bike on the rack, gas in the tank. Yes, it has been a rough one, with the criminal case and all. It would have been better if he hadn't attacked someone. Christ! Why did he have to do that? And then there is the question of how to make a living in this digitized world. You are more of an analog kind of guy. And the heart... don't even go there. The days are getting thinner, with less light. They barely feed you enough to keep you alive. But that's all then. This is now and soon. We're talking future here. Now that's scary. If only those ghosts hanging onto the bumper would let go and go get a life somewhere else. You know the only thing they listen to is having balls big enough to forgive. Well, for now, anyway, you guess you'd rather not. They smile at the prospect of that and find the strength to get a tighter grip. They're making their up along the side of the truck. They'll be in with you soon, drinking your beer, grinding up your bones. Faster. Faster. You jam the pedal to the floor hoping to outrun them. 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

In the Dark


Three o'clock in the morning and I'm wide awake sitting here in the dark again. This morning it is the meanness in the world that keeps me from sleep. The need to push others down so that you can feel safe or have more or rise higher is a way of being that I have lost, or fallen out of, or... something. It's that something again too, the one that has replaced the right word for things. A vise is closing on my mind. That is a hard one to accept, to witness, without running off into the desert, screaming. That said, the little thing that is me will pass. It is the meanness I'm really worried about. Seems like that has no trouble going on and on whether I can recognize it or not. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Almost Done


Last day of class. Can't believe it. It has been a bumpy ride, but not without its pleasures: Panama, for instance, was a kick in the old pantalones. I wanted to keep going, to learn to surf, speak a lot more Spanish, dream big. In this, the downhill of mid-life, I am learning that the particulars matter less than the will to love it all. In the work world, it's go big or go home. I might end up going home because I went big. In all honesty, I don't think I can continue to teach first-year courses. The prison work has consumed the all of me. Or, more precisely, writing about what I love has consumed my attention. I am not sure what that means in terms of work next year. I have signed up, but there are forces at work that are beyond my control. What's that sound? Waves crashing?

Saturday, April 29, 2017

They Come Together


After the fall, the trauma, the wound, there is an opening, a chance for healing to begin. There in the quiet, the only sounds you hear are the echos in your mind, and you can choose to get up or stay there broken on the ground. If you decide to rise, you will begin the long, hard road toward giving. You reach for the touch of others who might understand. Some, not all, will hear you. A few will join you, will help you build what needs to be built. There will come a day so beautiful it will rend the borders of you and you will blaze with light. The work begins and you take what you need from the strength of your brothers and sisters who come together attuned to the sound of your yes.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Mean and Nasty


Then there are the Lady Macbeths of the world, the Iagos, the slippery slimy back-stabbing ones who want to undo you. Often they are beautiful to the eye, rich in charisma, personal power. They will stop at nothing to assassinate your character, drag you down, and they delight in seeing you broken and wounded. Theirs is the fear so dangerous it blossoms sometimes into violence. They do not welcome or love the stranger and choose the fist over the open hand, the slammed door over dialogue. The more open, forgiving, and generous you are the greater their desire to do you harm, to stick the dagger in the rib when no one is watching. Watch for them. Know that theirs is not the only way, and that the price you pay for living under the spell of needing to be "safe" at the cost of hurting others is a hard heart, the invention of an enemy, a vision of "us" and "them," and a dark detour from your given path.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

How It Works


Something pops out of joint and your sleepy stumbling habits hit a wall. Now you can just stop there and curl up in slug-a-bed safety. Or you can say Huh, didn't see that coming and begin the journey into your secrets. You will have to follow the thread leading to what needs to be said. There you must face the dragon. In the heat of battle, you will be wounded, but if you are resourceful and true you will find a way around and through. You will then be lead onto a ledge overlooking the precipice of never imagined. At this point you pull the compass from your desires and cobble together the incantation that will lead you to your forgotten promises, your gift that was inscribed on a stone that was long ago flipped over, the truth of them hidden from you. It is the words that you want, what you must hold close, wrap in sacred cloth. Carry them with you always and leap into the unknowable. The dragon, now awake, has caught your scent, is coming to reclaim what he has stolen from you, and you need to stay one step ahead as you make your way into a joy that infuses you with fearlessness, even in the face of death. You have been broken, but somehow, miraculously, you have what you need to keep moving, to keep the glowing embers you carry from going cold.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

There Was a Time


Your hair was long, pants baggy, and wallet almost empty. You carried a backpack as you walked the narrow streets in Cuernavaca looking for a cheap hostel. You had no health insurance, no safety net, no cell phone, and no one who knew you before had any idea where you were. Mother included. You liked it that way. You had come for some answers, mainly to the question of whether or not life was worth living, arrogant young man that you were. There, off in the distance, framed by the colonial buildings that lined the streets, was the big volcano. You liked that too, seeing a volcano down the street on which you would live for the next several months. You would learn to live on the money you could make teaching English, learn to shop in the market for black beans, fresh corn tortillas, jitomates. You would read B. Traven and travel on chicken buses to Oaxaca. You would smuggle a Mexican friend across the border and then travel and work together back in the Estados. But all of that would come later, after you figured out what you came to figure out. You had to learn how to care for someone else, even if that took you out of where you thought you might be going.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Word Problems


He sits there before dawn doing God knows what with his little word stack. He crunches, tinkers, arranges, and twirls them into shapes that make sense to some ineffable hunch coiling down there in the folds of his gut. Why does he do this? It is because he must. The angels of his duodenum prod him forward and up in search of a direction. He must be lost, you say. He follows a thread that calls him toward something wanting light. He enters the zone of the thing, and, once there with it, in contact, can feel its power over him, the power of its story. It is here that the trash has to be hauled out or the treasure taken home. With a wand made of sound he can then rework the narrative into something a tad more, well, helpful. It is here that desire is so important. What do you want he asks his heart. If the heart is able to speak it will tell him. It is then up to him to locate the beauty in the word pile he has gathered. If he finds the right ones, they will light the way. They will lift his spirit and give him strength and direction. Others will see a change, not only in his eyes, but in his deeds. He enters the paradox of both undone and made anew. They may think him lost, yes. Well, maybe. I guess that the moth, too, is lost, right before it enters the flame.

Monday, April 24, 2017

First Freakin' Hundred


Words, that is. They are the hardest. After them, writing has usually taken on some self-perpetuating momentum that carries it forward. Those first ones, though, you have to overcome inertia, you know the object at rest thing, to get it up and running. Something out of nothing, or putting together what's there waiting to be said. Now Rachel Carson was good at that. She pointed to how we humans are actually part of nature. We're animals you know. Out of her work, we got things like the Environmental Protection Agency and regulations about how much poison we can pour onto the food we eat. Yes, we eat food, food grown on soil, soil that is part of, you know, nature, the environment. Well, the other side is having his hundred too, days that is. He's out to dissolve the work of decades, to get rid of the EPA, the NEA, and anything standing in the way of corporations cutting their way to the nearest bottom line. Well, the first hundred has been pretty rough, I gotta say. But there is rustling in the bushes and some of us animals are getting pissed. You can get a lot done in a hundred, and ours begins now.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Fog Line


I am riding two lines. The first is the actual white line marking the edge of Sunland Gin Road out here in the cotton boondocks of Southern Arizona near Eloy. The fields run away from the road, flat and dusty, to the Toltec Buttes. Now they look like Arizona: volcanic cliffs of baked irritability out there toward the horizon. The other line is subtle. It's the one I don't want to cross anymore than the fog line on the highway. This line is my anaerobic threshold. As long as I stay on this side I can keep pedaling pretty hard. If I go over that line and blow up, I'll lose the ability to sustain a high effort and will have to limp to the finish line of this 20 kilometer time trial. Not that I have any business out here. I am not a trained cyclist or a talented endurance athlete. But I got up at 3:45, packed my stuff and drove up here to pin on my number at 5:45 on a Sunday morning. Now I'm in the final five kilometers, and this is where it's supposed to hurt. So I ride that line. I go just up to the edge and watch my heart rate spike, the lactic acid saturate my quads, my vision go blurry, and my limbs go floppy, before pulling back on the throttle. Steady. I am hoping that all this blood will cleanse my black mood, lift and carry the toxic, calcified plaque of my psyche away to the rinse cycle. I'll know later whether the dopamine, the endorphins, the lovely pain-killer chemicals have done their job of lifting me out of this depressive rut. As the gap closes, I can push it harder and harder until the last half mile, where it's all-out puke-o-rama hard. I stand up and sprint to the finish going thirty miles an hour right before my vision goes spotty. It takes a minute for my breath to come back, my heart rate to slow to the point where I can think again. That was good. I could have maybe gone a sliver harder in a few places, but then I might not have ridden that line between fog and fun.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Return of the Black Dog


Just when you thought you were free, he comes back. That old leaden body, sudden irritability, dead mind, the no-go when the chance offers itself move back in uninvited and unannounced. Yep, it's the black dog. Where the hell did he come from? Lack of love? End of semester? Flare up of foot fungus? Whatever the cause, he won't let you be and goes with you as surely as your shadow. He is not merciful or kind but tenacious and tireless, unlike you. You can barely get out of bed. In fact you don't get out of bed unless you have to, even if you have to. Then he talks to you with his sad eyes. This life does suck doesn't it? It really doesn't matter what you do. Then you can't make sense of things and forget what it was you were about to do, who you were supposed to call. Papers pile up on your desk. You start again to lose track. This might be it. This might be the beginning of the big one. You know that, but, oddly, you don't care. You just want to be left alone.

Can't Get There From the Here You know


The old ways you know won't help you get to the place you want to be. To get there, you will have jump the rails of what you know and leap into the void of not yet understood. Your wanting to use the old, tired, and well-worn tools of your habit is like water dreaming of steam but being unwilling and unable to boil. A new way of being requires drastic measures, broken rules, and surrender to the unknown. The ticket out and in is imagination. You must dream yourself into what you deem impossible during the well-lit hours of familiar. The possible is new and terrifying and as close as your next breath. It waits only for you to call it out of the darkness, back home.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

What Others See


What you think, believe, fear, love, or possess is not what they see, really. Oh, they might like that you and they share some story about god or cars or who the bad guys are. That way you can sit around a campfire and bullshit your way into a drunken oblivion thinking that, yes, you have figured it out. Nothing wrong with that. But it's not what they see and embrace about you. What they see, how you appear to them, grows out of what you actually do. It is the actions you take, particularly those actions in the service of others, actions that serve to fulfill your social contract with brothers and sisters who need what you have to offer, and the effectiveness of those actual accomplishments that grows a picture of you in the minds of others. Your character, ultimately, will be judged by how you lifted others while here on your path taking care of yourself. So, if you ask why it is that you are not seen the way you want to be seen, look to your actions, and what holds you back from taking the steps that you know you want to take. Look to your community to see what needs doing and then to your fears and selfishness that keep you from doing it. Meet those demons and jump the barriers that keep you from chasing your dreams of connection. Once you are a being in motion toward something bigger than yourself, they will see who you really are.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What's Missing?


Da book about the prison writing workshops is coming along. It aint half bad, and it's still waiting to take the next step, the final word on what the workshops mean, to the inmates and to me. The reality of prison terrifies me: deadness, violence, lowest common denominator, brokenness, loss. I question whether or not I can really, honestly make a dent in that. I question my motives, my understanding, my effectiveness, my tendency to deceive myself, to take shortcuts when it comes to easy answers. I don't trust myself to really look at what is happening and make something comprehensible out of it. Can anything I do really make a difference in someone else's life? And can I say with any confidence what that is or how it happened? I have hunches and want to make up tidy little theories about life narratives being re-written, about opening to new possibilities, about the power of literature and creative expression to foster empathy and wider horizons, but is all of that just wishful thinking, just smoke blowing out the ass a hopeful, lost, obscure dude who happens to love and respect the power of language?

Unwinding


How he got there he couldn't say, but the moon above was half full, the morning not yet broken, and his heart restless. Sleep was a distant memory. Only the smell of grass and the song of wild birds fed his wandering. How could he want something so deeply that it colored every thought, movement, word? Yet he could never have what he so desired. It was the longing, unrequited, ongoing, feeding itself with its own hunger, that drove him out of his solitude, into his undoing. Having lived so long alone, his skin went hot with the nearness of others. The coils of protection loosened slowly, oh so slowly, and he withstood the reflex to run, to extinguish the rushes of love that flowed through him like a river in flood.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Contact


He sat there at the keyboard stroking out his latest rant against the criminals, rapists, drug dealers, and baby snatchers. He was sure they were destroying everything he held dear. The invectives flowed off his fingers like he was born to spew them. His anger knew no limits and had no basis in actual lived experience. He had never played on the same team in school, shared time planting a community garden, or even sat down to a drink with the people he was so set on impugning. He just thought about how terrible these people were, how they were diluting America the white. There, in the back of some question deep in the recesses of reason he wondered if what he was pronouncing had any basis in fact, if he had any actual contact with the people about which he seemed to be so sure. But that question, and the prospect of actually checking it out in some substantial way, like talking to someone, just slipped back into the shadows as his fingers pounded away on his device sending his poison into the social order like a runaway train.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Bus Ride in the Rain



Once in a while, prison routine takes a sharp corner into a surprise of suspended expectation. The walls drop away, and the wire loses its confining presence. Often these moments are accompanied by the smell of creosote; they are rinsed by sweet, fresh water. Today is one of those days.
 
Summer bakes the broad alluvial fan that spreads out from the Santa Rita Mountains in a wide, sloping incline. No floods have run across Wilmot Road for over three months, but the sky to the south today has gone purple with an anvil-headed cumulonimbus. I can see lightning stabbing at the ridges as the storm slides down off the mountain, dragging a dusty veil of wind and rain toward the prison. It’s about twenty miles off when I arrive, go through the search process and questions, pass through the sally port, and stand in a shrinking circle of summer sun. A shadow is taking over the expanse of scrub between the prison and the mountains. A storm has slid off the heights and is careening across the flats. The prison will be hit first, then Tucson, and, then the open fields to the north. There, it will become a dust storm. I am glad to be here and not driving.
 
The wind whips and scours loose paper as a twisting dervish carries debris six hundred feet above me in a spinning tunnel of particulate and litter. Immediately after, a rush of wet, cool air drops the temperature fifteen degrees in a matter of minutes as I set down the tub, in awe of the swift changes that desert monsoons push ahead of their arrival. In a few more minutes hail could could be hammering the metal roof above me.

Lightning strikes a couple hundred yards away and the peal of thunder is immediate. Rain travels across the bleak yard, coming as a broom sweeping a cloud of haze before it while wind rips and lifts water from the irrigation rivulet that travels dawn the ditches and swales around the trimmed ocotillo and palo verde trees. I would be better served inside but take cover under the overhang as rain blows against in cyclonic gusts under the steel roof. Yard after yard succumbs to the oncoming deluge as the gulleys gather the flood. The visitor bus driver sees me under the awning and veers off the main road and down the drive to the main gate. He speeds through the rising waters and sends a graceful wing of spray out from the keel of the wheels. He is loving it.

I am soaked to the skin immediately as I enter the downpour but walk to meet him, tubs in front me like a cooler to a party. I shiver but feel good to be cold. 

The driver is a young guy with holes on his ear where plugs used to be. No jewelry here. He has cranked up a heavy metal station on the radio, but that cannot compete with the peals of thunder all around us. He smiles. I see he is as wet as I am, his orange shirt clinging to his muscled shoulders and back. 

“Just did shift change,” he says, as a way of explaining why he is wet. His hand is on the lever and he waits until I sit down to swing the door shut. I sit on the plastic tandem seat beneath a blast of A/C. The grinding sameness of prison routine is visited by something rich and novel. The smell of the surrounding desert blankets the prison. A taste of the high mountains, the swirling currents of air in a storm cloud thirty-thousand feet high, and the assault of wintery chill have transformed the moment. Our habits of being and thinking have been suspended and we travel in fragile zone of creative tension. We can make this moment whatever we want because of the ephemeral transition zone between what is familiar and what is moving, in constant flux.

We head over to the maximum security unit where we will pick some other straggling visitors. 

Two older women wait under the overhang. One removes her sandals to cross the flooded gap between the overhang and the bus door. It is up to her ankles, but she does not complain. Instead, she moves like a schoolgirl, soaking in the lusciously warm runoff. The other keeps on her sandals and tiptoes. They climb in with help from the driver. Both of them are smiling like kids carrying Easter baskets. They are glad to be on the bus. Their dark hair, streaked with gray, drips onto their shoulders.

They chat with the driver like we are on holiday with him, our young tour guide. “You got here just in time. We thought we were going to be stuck there – all that lightning!”

“Yeah, when it rains out here, the rivers run deep and fast.  All that water has to go somewhere.” He speaks with the calm authority of the local, the native, the one with the inside scoop. We could be tourists in Greece or Nepal but for the razor wire and sharp division between the free and the imprisoned.  For just a minute our roles evaporate, and we are just people on a bus traveling through the storm.

I decide that we will write about rain today. I will ask them to describe a storm that is the composite of all the storms they have seen or heard of. I will ask them to tell the rain so that someone who wasn’t there might get a taste of the experience, might get a glimpse of what the moment was, in all its frightening mystery, all of its spell of awe and possibility.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

With Immense Power


He zips along fifteen miles an hour over the speed limit, but other cars are still passing him. A story written by someone he knows comes into the little capsule, delivered via waves transmitted from somewhere distant. Such magic and sorcery all this glut of discourse. The sound pulses in columns, the result of magnetic effects on a membrane designed to mimic human speech. Wind buffets the little car as a semi tractor screams past on its way to a positive cash flow. The story is a good one about joining the Border Patrol to learn first-hand what the border means to people trying to cross it. Its truth cuts a clear swath through the buzzing chaos of trash and hype. Those wonderfully arranged words grew out of many long nights puzzling over their sequence, how they would sound to a reader's ear. The writer could wander the existing universe of information through finger taps on a computer keyboard. With the stroke of a key, he could reach hundreds, thousands, millions. It was still the quality that mattered, the telling and the truth of the telling. He hoped people would sort through the garbage to hear the immediacy of humans caught in a terrible gamble of life and death in a desert crossing. That was reality, not all this bombardment of image, commercial, and distraction in the name of diversion. The magnitude of all of this dazzled him as he turned off of the big highway and onto a narrow strip that headed south, straight south, down toward the prisons. There were men waiting there. And they were waiting for the opportunity to tell their story, to polish that story, and to broadcast it somehow in a medium not unlike the one he listened to. But their access to such a possibility was highly forbidden. These men were unplugged, disconnected, off line in a world humming with connectivity. It was just another form of deprivation for having violated one law or another, for being out-of-sync with the rules one had to follow to join the game. But not all who see these men are so removed. The possibility occurred to him that he might just be a conduit from a world cut off to a world saturated in noise but hungry for truth, for an honest word. He had no idea of the power sitting there, right in front of him, waiting for his simple desire and the move he might make.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Things You Cannot Say


Because you do not know, you stumble along assailed by ghosts that you cannot see. You cannot see them because they live beneath a cover of darkness behind a veil that you pulled shut many years ago. They goad and stab and tickle you whenever a blind memory of them finds a cue to step up into your mood. Then you goddamn this and fuck that not knowing why you are so angry. So what do you do? You pick up the torch left here by your possibility and figure out how to ignite its revealing light. Once you can see, you have to go into the darkest place of your fear. There you will find wonder and the gold you paid the demons so they would let you live. It is your ransom, and, after some work, you can reclaim the authorship of the story you were born to tell, the gift you have been looking for all these years. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

True Story


A bundle of matter organized somehow into cells that operated together as an organism formed a thing called a thought. That thought led to a series of electrical and chemical messages that prompted muscles to coordinate with one another in a series of orchestrated contractions to bend this guy's knee in a way that made it possible for him to defy gravity and get his ass out of bed. Once standing, balance became more of in issue than it had been in his younger days, but with the light of a headlamp he made his way in the dark down a hallway where he eventually and hygenically drained his bladder. Around him swirled the energy of what some might call angels. He swatted at them thinking they wanted his blood and thought about food and sex. Back up, he made his way to a chair where he invited the future to help him enter what lunatics call a miracle of a day. To one side of him sat a little imp that said no while on the other a voice said just imagine. He realized then that it was up to him and he pulled the ineffable gap between darkness and light up close in a terrified embrace.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Another Jueves


Moon past full hangs like a tethered balloon about to be punctured by the sagging saguaro. The week is heading downhill into a pile of loose ends. All I want to do is write, to work on the book, but the tasks I get paid for have stacked up on my desk like angry ghosts. Thursday is a long day: three classes, an admin meeting, student conferences, and sometimes more. At the end of the day I will likely be more behind than I am at the beginning. Not such a big deal, just what's on the plate. It's also time to get ready for the prison workshops. I can hear the voices already. "You know," they say, "this is all we have, all that gives us some sense of purpose." Not that it's pressure or anything. Just more of what goes on between my hairy ears. I keep wondering if I am doing the right things. And, in my weaker moments, why I ended up so low on the totem pole. Faculty much younger than I am earn two or three times as much. They are famous, interviewed on the News Hour, get Guggenheim fellowships. I don't make enough to pay my taxes; Jeffrey Brown has not been calling me. It's enough sometimes for me to say I want out, just chuck it, or worse. Not that I am bitter or anything. It's just that Thursdays, for some reason, are the hard days, the ones in which my heart aches for what never was, what will never be. Time to shut up and get to work.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Chapter One -- James




He bends down to light his cigarette on the electric coil atop a steel post outside the Programs Building in the Rincon Unit of the Arizona State Prison, Tucson Complex. The coil and post are beneath a hulking monster of a cottonwood tree. It doesn't look so good. Cottonwoods are thirsty trees and need hundreds of gallons on water on a day like today. I doubt the Department of Corrections sees watering a cottonwood as a high priority.

He takes a long drag before standing up and meeting my eyes with the question of whether or not I am coming in next Saturday. I tell him I am, and that seems to satisfy him for a minute. Only later will I understand just how important this simple act will be, for both of us.

His eyes are grey, narrow, intelligent. He is one of the regulars in the workshop. He is also one of the published writers and has won the Pen Prison Writing Contest not once, but twice. He knows I could use his help to energize the circle now that Richard has lost his clearance. He and the other men had been led to believe the workshops were history, and that kind of bad news travels fast in prison.

Richard had been faithful to the writers, meeting them famously on Christmas after a rare desert blizzard. James and the other men were less than optimistic about my chances of filling Richard’s large shoes.

We are on our way out, or rather, I am on my way out.  James is heading back to his “house,” his cell, and another afternoon waiting for chow, the next distraction in the grinding boredom of prison life.

There are the violent flashes, the race riots, the endless politicking and negotiations with the gangs, but mostly the days are dull.

"You know," he says, looking at me over his smoke, "the guys think you're too soft, that the workshops need more pressure, mas animo, you know." He said "animo" in clipped, fluent Spanish. His black stubble and tattoos told the story of gang affiliation, but I don’t speak that language and couldn’t give more detail than that. "And they think your hair is fake. Look, I know it's not, because I know you, but you need to know word isn't all good."

I don't know how to take this. Is he conning me, looking for my reaction? I see that my being here is, in part, a high stakes game, that trust isn’t given easily. In order for the workshops to thrive, I’m going to have to engage more of my passions than I am used to, will have to meet on level ground, as much as possible. That means opening up, not playing a phony role, trying to be something I’m not.

"I'm not Richard," I said. "The workshops are going to be different.... I can't do what Richard did, but I am going to do what I do."

We walk along the sidewalk to where it splits –  James’ path to the houses, mine to the control room, the other side of two locked gates, the sally port, the main yard gate, and the bus that runs between the yards.

"We'll see," he says. "See you next week," his tone making the statement almost a question.  

I found the “see you” interesting. It was exactly what I was thinking, but in a different sense. James was in a class of men that had been invisible to me. Like most people out here in the free world, I thought next to nothing about the men at down here at the end of prison row (or the women in their prisons). They had been expunged from my little mental map by omission and lack of looking as anything.

As I walked, it dawned on me that I might have to become visible to him and the others as well. I would be asked to bring my “A Game,” in that I could not ask them to do more than I was willing to do. James must have been reading my mind.

“And bring in some of your writing. I’d like to hear what you’re working on, if you know what I mean,” he said over his shoulder as he walked down the sidewalk to his house and the cell that waited for him there.

“Sounds good,” I said. “I’ve got a series going on lunacy.”

He liked that and chuckled. “You don’t look like the crazy type.”

“You might be surprised. Even us teacher nerds have stories.”

“Made up or real?”

“Mostly real, some made up.”

“I bet the real ones don’t include prison.”

“No, you got that.”

“Oh well… doesn’t matter, as long as it works. You know Louis Armstrong says ‘you just have to have the music in you.’”

He was too far down the walk to keep talking, and it was “count,” time to be in the cell.

I hefted the plastic tub and buzzed the gate. It clicked and I passed through, showed my badge at the window and turned in the radio.

“Any keys?” the officer asked.

“No. Just words,” I said.

He gave me a screwed up face and then “OK then.”

***

James, as much as any of the inmates I have worked with, embodied a deep respect for language, for creative work, for music, and the value of expression. He told me that without the purpose he gained from working on his writing, he would die in a way. He had a deep need to be seen, and was acutely aware of the obstacles to finding someone to see or hear him. 

Incarceration, and a social awareness of the men and women who live behind the wires, I would soon see, is only brought into public view when there is a race riot, an escape, or some lurid case of abuse of staff or other sensational news story. As men, as human beings, those we lock up in our prisons are all but forgotten.

There have been some television series about prison lately, but the human faces are mostly omitted from social awareness. There is far too little contact, too little dialogue, to little caring.

It would take a while, but I would begin to see the humanity behind the masks of tattoos, hear the voice behind the armored persona.

Yes, I would see James and hundreds of others. And I would find in them more than I could ever have imagined.

There is a city here, I say, like some amazed explorer, a small ocean of humanity, hungry to compose a meaningful life, at the end of Wilmot, just down that prison road.