Monthly Archives: April 2013

Exercise #87

il_fullxfull.257143996This exercise may be less about the task and more about the workings of a nocturnal brain.

A crown of sonnets or sonnet corona is a sequence of sonnets, usually addressed to one person, and/or concerned with a single theme. Each of the sonnets explores one aspect of the theme, and is linked to the preceding and succeeding sonnets by repeating the final line of the preceding sonnet as its first line. The first line of the first sonnet is repeated as the final line of the final sonnet, thereby bringing the sequence to a close. An advanced form of crown of sonnets is also called a sonnet redoublé or heroic crown, comprising fifteen sonnets, in which the final binding sonnet is made up of all the first lines of the preceding fourteen, in order.

Write a “heroic crown” of sentences using the definition above, substituting words for lines.

1. New nights bring new angles of moon and darkness, and—between sleeping and waking—black and glowing shadows attack and retreat like great fronts of weather.

2. Weather penetrates even dreams, rain pouring so suddenly it soaks my clothes, and the loss of comfort shocks.

3. Shocks like these stir in a mind like a muddy field already filled with loose roots of leaning, menacing trees.

4. Trees loom when the dreaming brain can find nothing to turn them into.

5. Into empty hours come worries budding.

6. Budding and building and knotting, fears proliferate in brain soil like planted eyes.

7. I don’t know if a promise to face them in waking hours is anything more than another wish.

8. Wish the rain would stop, wish I might, into sodden hours, bring sun.

9. Sun might do more than hopes could.

10. Could I control my thoughts, write a forecast my brain could then enact, what a difference that would make.

11. Make another metaphor and I create more fabrication… another trouble of mine.

12. My inventions lie deep in my nature.

13. Nature in the outside world happens without care or compulsion, saying endlessly, “ It’s as simple as….”

14. As the planet makes its required revolution, so the world becomes new.

15. New weather shocks trees into budding—I wish sun could make my nature as new.


Filed under Doubt, Dreaming, Essays, Experiments, Identity, Insomnia, Laments, life, Lyn Hejinian, Meditations, Play, Prose Poems, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Voice, Worry, Writing

A Defense of Studying Literature

fume-hoodWhen people call physics and chemistry “hard sciences” they refer to those subjects’ basis in mathematics and quantitative reasoning. In the lengthy definition of “hard,” such subjects fit best with 7a,“1. firm, definite; 2. not speculative or conjectural: factual; 3. important rather than sensational or entertaining.”

By that definition, my own specialty—reading, thinking over, and writing about literature—is decidedly soft. Many people probably assume the earlier definitions of “hard” don’t fit English either. Because literature classes don’t require mastering complex and rigorous physical laws, they aren’t seen as being as difficult as classes involving equations, graphs, and experimental data. Literature is fuzzy, subject to slippery interpretations and airy whims. You can say anything about a story, novel, or poem, the reasoning goes, so what you say is insubstantial, variable, and, on some level, false. Some people think English teachers should grade easier because there’s nothing really to grade. If you can’t do numbers or master analyzing figures, it appears you’re better at bullshit than anything else.

As might be expected, this sort of thinking makes me defensive. Anyone who has read Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, Dickinson, Woolf, Joyce, Pynchon, Wallace, and countless others knows literature aspires to considerable complexity. Some works offer challenges equal—in their own way—to calculus, advanced economics, or quantum physics. The absence of hard information creates distinctive burdens. Nuanced interpretations rely on sophisticated understanding of language, fine differentiation, scrupulous decoding, and resourceful observation. Saying something new about texts pored over for hundreds of years isn’t easy.

Nonetheless, some might say less is at stake. People see literary analysis as arcane. No one calls an English teacher for an emergency opinion on Jane Austen, so we’re all diddling, expending valuable mental energy on silly pursuits. Nothing we talk about or write about is real because none of it is practical, none required. If I say understanding the human condition is real and necessary, a boon to living if not absolutely essential, some may say, “Yes, but it’s fiction, right? It’s invented, not the granite foundation of existence.”

I wish people understood hard sciences the way I understand literature, as a way of seeing, produced by a distinct sort of curiosity providing one valuable angle on reality. How did the quantifiable become so privileged? How did it become the preferred means to truth—and sometimes regarded as truth itself? When did we begin believing exclusively in the explainable, the graph-able, and the hitherto undiscovered minutiae of physical processes? How can the definitive be all we should notice? When did we decide only knowing certainly matters?

Sometimes I think everything we call “hard” in those terms—the factual and verifiable—is actually the lowest lying fruit, subject to mechanical processes of discovery requiring more discipline than invention, more scrutiny than inspiration, more brute data-picking than art. I know that’s not so. Experimenters rely on insight as well. They follow hunches about where and how to look. Scientists and mathematicians require creativity also. I see that.

These hard subjects are clever and rigorous, but I want to beg respect for my own specialty and request acknowledgement of literature’s effort to seek truth. If humans only find answers to the questions we think to ask, shouldn’t we ask all sorts of questions and address reality from every angle of inquiry, hard and soft?

The other day, a senior at my school said, “I’d like to go into medicine, but I’ll probably end up studying English instead.” Her assumptions were ready to be read. She knows she may have to settle. Medicine may be too hard, and English is simpler. Maybe, but even if that were so—and it shouldn’t be—the value of any study can’t rest on how easy or difficult it is. Academic disciplines arise from what they add to understanding, how they train minds, educate, and humanize.

I’d argue this country produces as many bad scientists as bad English majors. And our educational system as a whole fails when it ranks pursuits as fruitful and less so, as real and unreal. Of course the world needs scientists and mathematicians, and, because rigor probably has scared people away, it’s important to urge others to fill those roles. But we also need brilliant people who can accommodate soft thinking and appreciate elusiveness and uncertainty and—dare I say it?—beauty. Education will be healthier if it can recognize the value of complexity without groping for definitive, hard answers.


Filed under Ambition, America, Arguments, Art, Education, Essays, Genius, Identity, Laments, Modern Life, Opinion, Persuasion, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Writing

In My Room

article-1184369-04FEF065000005DC-530_468x310When I was young, tantrums—fits, really—sometimes possessed me. Some minor slight would set me off, and I’d rail in ire or angst or something between. I lost it so often my family nicknamed me “The angry bee” because I buzzed incomprehensibly and spun like someone signaling a path to poison flowers. I couldn’t have been easy to watch, so my parents sent me to my room. Their instructions were simple and direct: “Stay there until you can come out and be a civil human being.”

Once alone, I’d…

  • rail against the injustice of my oppressors
  • formulate elaborate plans to run away
  • fantasize how much I’d be missed
  • cry until crying grew tiresome
  • relive and revise the moments that landed me there
  • embrace whatever criticism I’d received
  • crack the door to listen to my family without me
  • catalog my other shortcomings and fatal flaws
  • excoriate myself for the sins of my nature
  • cogitate over what made me so unsuited to society
  • resolve to become Spock and never feel emotion again
  • compose the newest chapter of my prisoner’s autobiography
  • prepare my apology and a sincere promise—this time—to change
  • rehearse a jocular re-entry sparing my saying anything
  • wait, hoping someone noticed and retrieved me

These episodes ended much less dramatically than they began. I slinked back into the TV room. One of my brothers or sisters scooted over to make room on the couch or in a chair. I slotted into the space, and no one said anything. The biggest kindness, they must have believed, was silence, forgetting, moving on.

I’d say the process didn’t help me much but really it made me. In many ways, I’m in that room still, a ruminating creature subject to the same looping reexaminations and recriminations, looking for a place when I’m never entirely sure I belong anywhere. Without my history of time alone, I might not pursue sense so desperately now. I might not read the way I read or write as I do.

Nonetheless, the infinite time out isn’t anything I’d recommend, and it wasn’t a course I could take with my own children. My wife’s request I let my son or daughter stew, to give them time to process, to calm down, to think twice about the things they’d said—such patience felt impossible to me. In their place, I’d await some angel’s arrival. I wanted to be the angel. My children weren’t always glad to see me, and sometimes they welcomed continuing our dispute just where we left off, but I couldn’t stay away, couldn’t leave them alone, couldn’t leave me alone, couldn’t leave questions alone.

My self-restraint never lasts long. Though I’ve learned to affect a preternatural calm, I’ve never actually had much. My mood changes more than weather, is more subject to subtle shifts in air pressure, cloud cover, temperature, and wind direction.

You can accept never settling some issues because variables are too multitudinous and circumstances too chaotic, but thinking every issue insolvable is a bad habit. And one hard to break. Disbelieving assures you’re right. Though self-recrimination is a tremendous ally to deliberation, a motivation to think over, under, and through complicated questions, a spur to exploring subtle distinctions, implications, and applications, though I wouldn’t be myself without this relentless sense I haven’t thought anything through yet, that room is lonely.

The greatest kindness may be someone who can stop spinning flywheels of thought and affirm what you might otherwise never believe. Some rooms you can’t escape without help.

Leave a comment

Filed under Aging, Anger, Apologies, Depression, Doubt, Essays, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Memory, Parenting, Place, Solitude, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Writing

Speaking of You as Me (or the opposite)

photoIf you kept a part of everything you’ve broken, how big would the pile be? Several trunks would follow moves, and, if you dared to reach into shards of glass and crockery, you might find forgotten hours and days in fragments.

Prufrock has scuttling claws, you bits of mugs given by hands and faces lost long ago. This imaginary pile is mostly accidental, products of inattention and clumsiness. Other broken things touched you peripherally. You pushed the button for the last time or found the weak bridge of plastic, metal, or fabric fated to snap or sever at someone’s hand—yours.

That’s something though, you were an instrument, the person present.

Of course, writing about your collection of broken things wouldn’t necessitate talking about those moments. Writing is coy, as much silence as saying. Quiet means to seduce readers, even if, as you compose, the idea of being seductive seems laughable. No one sees you as you search for what might incite longing. It will be your longing and a reader’s only second-hand. Loss eludes the future tense. You write about what’s gone because you wish for belief, faith in what you once possessed and don’t anymore.

You can’t write without guessing an audience’s desire, so every approach invents resistance. So much of what you might say no one wants to hear. In that pile of broken things is a key snapped in half, the other buried in a lock elsewhere. In that pile are edges defining what’s gone, the eye that implies a face or an eyeless face. Somewhere, among all the pieces, is an object you meant to keep whole and, no longer whole, lament still.

Among the rubble is lost childhood, everything meant to be reassembled, clues to what led to life now. As you began, you continue. Where you assembled, you stoke your desire to repair. You picture placing parts together, searching for pleading edges, epiphany in dissimilar but sympathetic losses.

Here is a device. Here is a machine. Writing means to make discarded cogs mesh and turn detritus into treasure. You’ve been told, perhaps many times, there’s truth in trash. Just look and, if you see nothing else, you will see abandonment. Privation speaks. All the fragments shout loss, seen or unseen, implicit, explicit, invisible, and aching.

And even if you keep no pile or trunk of pieces, the broken will lurk by implication. You have only so many words, and you’re bound to surround reality in your attempt to say what you can’t. It will all be said, either in words or in what they leave out.

Some part of you circles this imaginary midden, looking for clues that might collect it all and speak at last. You won’t quit believing in meaning. You can’t stop collecting. You want to realize sense in what you know is gone. You’re sure there’s something there.


Filed under Aging, Allegory, Ambition, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Nostalgia, Prose Poems, Revision, Thoughts, Worry, Writing


601seasonsChicago has been stingy with spring so far. The sun—though warm enough—doesn’t appear often enough. The sky is the right blue at times but clings to low temperatures. In the fair fragments of fair days, people emerge as from caves, turn their faces upward, and walk stupefied in parks and on busy streets. But I can’t count on the next day. Another storm or chill will come.

To live here, you need insulation—not just the real sort that stuffs coats or lines walls against wind and snow, but the psychological sort that allows you to remain steady through cold and hot, that keeps you tolerant, moderate, and calm in the face of struggles. Insulated people aren’t unsettled by bad minutes, hours, or days. They’re rarely put-off, aggravated, insulted, or miffed. They don’t feel down for long. Nothing penetrates their poise. Their desperation barely becomes audible.

My own insulation is thin. Some people say I’m “sensitive,” though no one applies the term as a complete compliment. Being sensitive means you feel subtle shifts of light and shadow and the rise and dip of each degree change. When you’re sensitive, winter permeates you. You thaw just as readily, but I wish I were the sort who stayed the same through vicissitudes. I’d like to carry the seasons in me, to call them as needed and rest assured I might meet spring just as summer, fall, and winter.

The world has no shortage of worries and is always with me, and anything that happens—to those I know and those on the news—can drag me into weather hard to elude.

The other day, after another soggy walk to school, I ran into a colleague who told me I shouldn’t despair, that spring had to come someday. I tried to be cheered, but hope comes reluctantly when conditions affect you. People say things will get better, and I know they’re right, but these things will also get worse, and better again, and worse. I know that, however these things are, they will demand I accept their comings and goings and how little I control them.

It’s enough to make me desire delusion, the willful substitution of faith for doubt, and the oblivion of utter insensitivity. I could wish for hibernation too, if I didn’t worry about its becoming my perpetual state, a way to escape into unconsciousness and save myself from internal weather.

A bright day will arrive soon to obliterate these dark thoughts—it can’t rain every day—and, when a beautiful day does appears, I’ll celebrate spring with everyone else. In the meantime I wish I could find another layer to wear. I wish belief in spring sustained me more.


Filed under Apologies, Chicago, Depression, Doubt, Essays, Hope, Identity, Laments, Meditations, Spring, Survival, Thoughts, Urban Life, Worry

Meeting Up

columbia-alma-mater-statueWhen I found my first masters’ thesis from 1982, I couldn’t resist reading.

The first sentence was simple enough, the second less so, and, after that, I encountered syntax and language so muddy I couldn’t trudge through it. I gave up, convinced someone else must have written it, maybe an ancient astronaut or some medieval pedant I was channeling at the time.

Am I that much stupider, or was I once so much more pretentious?

One of my favorite Borges stories is “The Other,” about someone meeting his younger self on a park bench. The narrator of the story—the old man—can’t convince the young man that he’s talking to his future self. The youth believes he’s dreaming. All the biographical proof the older man offers is dim memory, and the older man can’t clearly recall once meeting his aged self either.

The moment leads to an impasse. All the fantasies a reader might harbor about going back in time—or forward—lead to nothing. They were unprepared; they talk about books. Even exchanging currency from their respective years proves inconclusive, the money too strange to accept.

Having revised my resume recently, I think I understand Borges’ story better. We think of ourselves as one person when, like an organism whose every cell is replaced one at a time on strict schedule, we are entirely different. We don’t recognize the subtle transmutation or, even recognizing it, don’t accept it really.

My resume lists degrees I’ve earned and tasks I’ve performed at work, but they’re a better description of the turns I’ve taken than who I am. Who I am, in some sense, is where I’ve arrived. It’s a trap to be overly impressed by framed diplomas I once earned.

The runner in me hears a voice inside saying, “What have you done lately?”

I wonder, with Borges, what it might be like to disillusion my younger self, to tell him events that seem so vitally important will prove to be another staging area for another and yet another…and some of what you think will be major accomplishments turn out to be empty vanity. I’d be sorely tempted to urge him to stop dragging degrees and grades like strong boxes and accept that memory lasts longer than achievement. “Each year is a new vantage from which to view life,” I’d spout, “another plateau or valley. And that’s better.”

Some parents seek to create paper trails to testify to their children’s experience. They want something neater and more portable than the messy and contradictory people children can be. I don’t blame them because who could object to their desire to situate their children for success and happiness?

At times, however, it’s tough to tell which comes first—documentation or experience.

For some of their children, the future oppresses the present. They learn “having done” is more important than “doing,” and doing loses its pleasure. They become academic bulimics more interested in having eaten than in growing from the food.

Living in the present is difficult for me too. I dream about meeting my son or daughter’s future self and being impressed by what each has become. But I can’t ignore my own experience. My own parents loved and supported me, but they didn’t—couldn’t—control what I’ve become. Now that my children are older, my only job is to help them deal with now—the latest mistake, disappointment, or triumph—and offer what comfort I can.

Any grand plan for my children’s future is a bench where stranger meets stranger. I try not to look forward or back too far. Now is a moment moving on.

1 Comment

Filed under Aging, Ambition, Apologies, Doubt, Education, Ego, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Modern Life, Parenting, Recollection, Revision, Teaching, Thoughts, Work

The Closed Door Policy

door_revThe front door of our building doesn’t close unless you pull the knob hard, and my wife—condo association president—left a sign: “Please pull door shut.” Still it often isn’t shut, leaving me to guess why.

In elementary school, I was a kid who believed every lost item had been swiped. It didn’t matter that no one would want one sock or a special zebra rock I’d found under the slide—evil forces lurked. Unfortunately, since then only the range of possibilities has changed. I invent scenes I haven’t seen, eye everyone as a character in some drama, and assign intentions.

My neighbor’s boyfriend is often in the building. His clothes are impeccably dishabille, his hair artfully mussed, and he wears sunglasses when it’s stormy. His deft movements say he should have left before now. I offer “Hello,” and he raises his chin five degrees. Sometimes, he says something that isn’t a word.

This winter, during our worst snowstorm, as I shoveled the front steps, he appeared at the front door in expensive leather shoes. He stepped gingerly in the spaces I’d already cleared and into the street. 20 minutes later he returned with a sandwich from Subway as I continued to shovel, and, still hurrying, swept inside. No words either way.

So he’s my number one suspect, and I’ve invented a personality from these few particulars… plus others. I’m convinced he convinced his girlfriend to install an elaborate sound system that shakes our wall when it’s full-throat. Once I went to their door about noise and my knocking went unheard, and I was sure he was ignoring me. For the holidays, he received a horn and occasionally, at moments seemingly timed to annoy, he blows it like a shofar.

So I imagine his walking up to the front door, harrumphing in contempt at my wife’s sign, and then deliberately leaving the door ajar.

“He’s just the type,” I think.

Of course, my supposition reflects more poorly on me than my sometimes neighbor. I shouldn’t blame him if he doesn’t care to fraternize with his girlfriend’s neighbors. Perhaps he is late. Maybe his eyes are sensitive.

And maybe I’m too quick to blame others as deliberately difficult when I’m just being difficult myself.

I’ve met a few people who celebrate stubbornness and boast about obstacles they create. In our diagnosed age, we’d say they have O.D.D. or oppositional defiant disorder. They are pathologically obstreperous, hostile to innocent commands, and determined to subvert order. But I suspect they’re less common than we think and, seen from another angle, they’re necessary, the only people poised to see what we accept too readily. Are they any worse than people, like me, who are too fearful of confrontation? I’d never follow my neighbors downstairs to check their work at the front door. I’d never say anything if I found a culprit out.

Who knows, assuming malice may be another way to sublimate my own buried hostility. The safest accusation can neither be tested nor proven. The greatest satisfaction arises from what’s held closest, most inviolably. As I learned in elementary school, better to believe in stolen goods than admit carelessness.

One political party stands ready to accuse the other of deliberate evil. Congress blames the President, and he wonders if their actions reflect their beliefs or a desire to obstruct progress. TV hosts boggle at the stupidity of public figures they wouldn’t dare invite to the set, and public figures take pot shots at hosts they never watch.

The open door probably has many thoughtless authors, each believing someone else guilty of the crime. What if someone’s picked me out as the criminal?

If everyone loves the idea of an adversary as much as I do, the world is in trouble. It shouldn’t be so hard to think better of people, but it is. Sometimes it seems the only important transgressions target you, intrude on you, hurt you, endanger you. It’s too easy to offend our rectitude. That door is always open.

Leave a comment

Filed under America, Anger, Doubt, Essays, Home Life, Laments, life, Modern Life, Politics, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry

Then Again

revision_logo_smallLately my dreams cut and re-cut fabric until, if it were assembled, it’d barely fit a doll.

Here’s a dream: I’m drawing a truck on commission. My unknown patron makes peculiar requests. I’m to use a certain sort of marker and a certain sort of paper, to work under a certain lamp, and to make marks of certain character and quality. Yet every pen touch is wrong. To correct them, I extend lines or bend them or double them or cross them with other lines or reverse the page to use the shadows bleeding through.

I can’t see the image in my dream, but it isn’t a truck because the drawing erupts like mad cancer, budding, growing, budding, and growing again.

Finally, I get up to read on the couch.

I also form a question for my patron, reworded twenty times: “Is anything un-revisable?”

In the waking world, so much seems so. Bullets don’t return to guns. Physics carries bodies on dire headings. Our responses, however, morph endlessly. We want tragedies to change our thinking but can’t agree on what the tragedies mean. After a moment’s fact, we have only implications.

The other day The Chicago Tribune included the story of a woman who died when she fell down the trash chute of her high rise—17 floors—and wasn’t discovered until a day later. When my wife encountered the story, she asked, “How does a person fit in a trash chute?” and my daughter asked, “How did she fall in?” and I said, “Can you imagine the agony of trying to explain it?” No one was there, and a story—reimagined, revised—replaces truth.

And here I am, using the story myself.

I’m really asking what we can leave alone. One of my son’s lower school art teachers used to say, “There are no mistakes in art, only opportunities.” Her approach suited a nine-year old whose creative train derailed at the lightest breeze, but I’m not sure how deeply her advice penetrated. Once, cleaning out a closet, I found a sketchbook he’d nearly filled with starts—ovals, boxes, the hind legs of headless beasts, and houses that fell before they stood. Many he’d abandoned with angry waves of his pen snaking through what lay beneath.

Teaching revision, I stress the word “re-vision” as a way to urge more than editing. “To really re-envision work,” I say, “pay attention to the possibilities individual comments create for changes elsewhere. Every essay is infinitely perfect-able.”

But I don’t work that way. I adjust, adding and subtracting until I’m finished or abandon the attempt. If grooming prose doesn’t find the answer, there is none. Expedience wins, what suffices. Other writers describe poems, stories, or essays reaching the form they wanted. I’ve had a glimmer of that feeling but distrust it—isn’t that just the rapture I desperately desire?

Here’s another dream: Cards litter a room. Each is white on one side. Stripes of various colors and widths appear on the other side. I’m sure I’m meant to match similar cards, so I wade in, trying to find a card exactly like the one I hold. When I can’t, I pick up a new card, and, unable to match that… you get the idea.

One of my graduate school teachers touted “radical revision.” She made me read essays from the last paragraph to the first to uncover what was misplaced. She instructed me to put my essay in a drawer and try to rewrite it from memory to find, “what ought to stick.” She bisected pages with commands to rearrange them any other way.

These exercises, she said, train intention, revealing reasons behind composition and establishing conscious control over the otherwise accidental. I didn’t enjoy being radical. Words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and pages became furniture. I bruised my shin on a sudden coffee table or tumbled, unbalanced, into a shattered lamp. When anything can go anywhere—or not go at all—something is always in the way.

I told a friend about my dreams, and she said I might be doodling or writing too much. Fixing and re-fixing can’t be good for a brain. Your mind trips into a sixties-style reverb where the frame of things disjoints, then pulsates. Echoes echo on themselves.

Who wouldn’t mind a steadier camera and crisper fidelity, but has that human age passed? A world of possibilities offers no end to revision, and no end to revision offers little relief.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ambition, Anxiety, Doubt, Dreaming, Essays, Identity, Insomnia, Laments, Modern Life, Revision, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Writing


727755015_94987219cf_zI have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth. —Umberto Eco

At first, he put the new shell nowhere near the last, but soon that became impossible. Shells gathered like barnacles clinging to a hull where the air was a vast sea. No one came to tidy up because, as far as he knew, no one visited except him. Whether that did or didn’t make this spot the shrine he imagined, he was loyal.

He half-thought—half-hoped—someone might happen upon his work. A stranger might read signs of loving days, recognize accretion of attention in so many shells so meticulously arranged. When he feared they wouldn’t, he felt vague and unanchored dread, but, as time passed and his daily burden gathered, the shrine spoke its own mystery and meaning apart from him.

Each shell represented careful choice. He might have chosen many others. Some shells he must have passed by before, as they looked almost resigned where they lay, as if they already knew they wouldn’t leave that spot and accepted it. Others cried out. He didn’t always pick the loud ones but noticed their intentions. The silent conversation he shared with shells ran like an undercurrent through his thoughts every morning he walked the shore. He felt important amid all their insistence and also humbled, cowed by what he might do for them.

Yet that day’s shell grew lighter as he carried it. His hand’s warmth stirred the smell of the sea and the absence in the shell’s cavity. A shell is a dead thing—only imagination makes it live again. When you put a shell to your ear, you hear not the distant sea but your own blood rushing invisibly, amplified and echoing, trapped in a labyrinth, the spiral corridors and its abandoned rooms.

He’d started as a boy, and at first it’d meant nothing to leave each shell. It was something he did, and fervor came later. To abandon his task is to acquiesce, to break a chain of days.

In dark moments he stared at his city of shells and wondered about devotion, about compulsion, about obsession, about what separated them. Looking at the spaces he’d ringed and the towers he’d piled in loving balance, he liked to believe his own architecture found expression. A hidden order needed notice. Yet, how could he tell? Maybe desperation is the fundamental necessity. What would he have without a shrine, what other reason might he find for continuing?

The answer crept like tides—inevitable, dawning, adamant—approaching and withdrawing. Nothing else interested him. Walking in the diminished ripples of breakers, he thought about alternatives, what might satisfy his yearnings or fill the blank spots in his imagination. Before he sensed what he was doing, he reached into the surf and saved another shell from vanishing. He shook it in the receding water. He brought it up to his eyes and regarded it. Something said it was the last, the best, the final word.

He’d be back the next day. He wasn’t finished. He couldn’t bear being finished.


Filed under Allegory, Blogging, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Identity, life, Metaphor, Modern Life, Parables, Thoughts, Work, Writing