Monthly Archives: December 2013

About Time (parts 1-8)

artworks-000023974245-wycgon-originalThe first half a long lyric essay…

1.

Kierkegaard said we must live forward but only understand it looking back.

Stendhal said a novel is like a mirror carried along a road.

E. M. Forster said if we’re told the king died and then the queen, we call it a story. If the queen dies of grief, we call it a plot.

Einstein said physicists know past, present, and future are fictions but each is nonetheless convincing.

I say time is clothing, wearing it makes us part of humanity, saves us from isolation, spares us madness. Yet we never entirely, consciously or unconsciously, accept its imposition.

2.

In police procedurals they sometimes ask suspects where they were at a certain time on a specific day. Anything but the most obvious dates would stymie me. I might be hopeless if the disputed moment were anything more than six months back.

If you could return to some arbitrary day, so much would surprise you, but most of it would likely be forgotten, what you might remember if you tried. The rest would be more interesting, parts your present makes visible, what you couldn’t see then.

Yet you won’t know more. You’ve lost your place and revisiting won’t restore it.

Some scholars say the Modernists Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot didn’t actually read all the literature they claimed to. One of the chief characteristics of Modernism is its free quotation of diverse sources and connectivity of thought we take for granted. Some of what Pound and Eliot cite from books comes from footnotes about those works in other works.

I read this revelation in a footnote to one of Eliot’s poems.

My relation to time is similar. Relying on what I’ve written is reading footnotes.

In the closet upstairs are a series of spirals I filled between 11 and 22. Though it’s been years since I opened them, I’m sure they’d seem familiar, so much so I’d think I remember when, actually, I’m selectively stealing that sensation. My journals have never been exact. Their reports contextualize, not define, and context is impossible to retrieve.

3.

Someone asked me if I was close to my father, and I fumbled for an answer like I was pulling a kitchen tool from a neglected drawer. To find a tool, I need to remember some part of what it looks like. Clues come from recollected color or shape or context and, lacking those, I have so much to shift around and learn anew. It could be anywhere… and anything. I pause because I can’t remember what might tell me I’d found what I sought.

If any answer will do, I’ll say, “Yes,” but I’ll take longer to consider a response apart from this drawer. Time has it and who can extract it?

4.

Consider how regular time is in passage and how variable in perception—try to hold it and it vaporizes, wish it vapor and it runs like sap arresting each moment by moment.

Time, it’s said, aligns like beads on a string, and you won’t have one instant apart from what precedes or follows it. Yet, a broken-stemmed flower, a glance averted to prepare for the next word, a bottle midair, the light touch of a finger on your elbow, laughter not including you, the wince of hulls brushing, a loose and forgiving smile, the sun hooded by storms… all sit sacrosanct on a shelf, memorials to isolation, attachment, and the eternity in memory.

5.

I often attempt to remember my father’s voice, but he seems even more silent than in life. Perhaps I’m listening so hard I’ve silenced him then as well as now.

6.

I knew I was late but arrived to find the event not underway but entirely over. No one I knew walked among those talking and laughing and streaming in the opposite direction discussing what just happened, something someone said or an amusing, remembered image.

You’d think I’d feel sorry or sad or chagrined to have missed what they experienced, but instead my invisibility seemed magical, as if I’d escaped time altogether, at last found a way outside it.

Then someone said, “David! Where were you? We waited, but—“

7.

Time has no youth, no need to recollect. He stares forward, and if, as he moves, some trailing reverberation winds around to face him again, he takes it as new. It can’t be exact repetition if it’s before him, though it may seem familiar. To Time, the familiar is ever fresh and, therefore, ever the same. Time makes no distinctions. He babbles on.

8.

As I child I sometimes played with disproportionate toys, a troll beside a green army man, and Barbie, tip-toe, smilingly towering over both, threatening to fall and bring chaos to every order I created.

These scenes rested on willful poise—a balancing spell—and fragile assumptions shored up their existence. Foreground and background, past and present, matter and imagination mixed in belief.

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All I Want

christmas-tree“What’s the best gift you’ve received?” is a get-to-know-you question I’ve encountered a couple of times. I have no answer. It may say everything about me that the opposite question—my worst gift—would be easier. At my age, Christmas doesn’t bring the sort of material anticipation it once did. I’m curious to see how my family likes what I’ve chosen for them. I hope I’ve done a good job shopping.

All my shopping is over now, which may be my answer to the question that starts this post. I’m grateful. Today Chicago is sunny but especially cold. The thermometer reads 7° F (-14° C) with a wind-chill of -7° (or -22° C). Past a certain point, all temperatures are abstract, but few people seem to be braving the air. Retailers would like it warmer, I’m sure, but I’m appreciative. Perhaps my family will stay in. Both children are home from college, but their schedules and our schedules mean we haven’t spent much time together yet.

I’m a homebody, and, even if we’re all lounging about reading or roaming online, I love company. And calm. Life travels at such a pace it’s hard to focus on any face for long and landscapes blur. The people who make money on this season prefer us frenetic. They like us to feel discontent standing still.

This time of year I watch sappy Christmas movies that follow a familiar pattern: a man or woman made incomplete by a recent tragedy or loss comes in contact with someone new (supernatural or natural) and becomes complete again just in time for December 25th. They find love or family or family and love. The plots reveal a deficit in our lives. We’re damaged, and nothing will mend us but addition. At least these movie remedies aren’t material. No character is made whole by an iPad or Mercedes under a giant red bow or jewelry from Jared.

As predictable as these stories are, they’re comforting. Normally I can’t abide cliché and formula, but they’re a balm to my fretting. With no great loss to overcome, no big blank where someone should be, no desire to meet an angel or Santa or any of his relatives, you’d think me immune, but I’m not sure any of us are. We’d like to believe things could be more right, all of us. Which is another way of saying nothing is quite enough.

“It’s the thought that counts,” I’ve heard over and over, and maybe we need some emblem to take the place of warm thoughts about loved ones. Yet Christmas, as practiced by most of us, is just as much an expression of discontent, a desire that, for one day at least, we might possess all we want, including items we haven’t thought to want yet. Of course, it’s absurd. Even if we could be sated—humans seldom are—no thing will make us so or make us so for long.

Yet, though I’ve celebrated many Christmases, I don’t lose hope that tranquility might come. The paradox runs deep—I never stop yearning for that momentary release from yearning—but, in the end, it’s the possibility of comfort that possesses me this season.

Sneer at my idealism if you like. Make fun of my affection for “All I Want for Christmas,” “Snowglobe,” and “A Holiday Engagement”—I don’t feel so good about my need for sentimentality myself—but all I really want for Christmas is to stay out of the cold, to revel in my family, to stand still, to find peace.

I’m wishing you the same.

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Anticipation

boxes-inside-boxesAnother very short story… I try to hold myself to 20 minutes on these but sometimes cheat. It’s so hard not to move phrases around, to replace one word with another. It’s never right.

Walking home, he felt certain he’d find a present, propped against his door, a box wrapped in brightly colored paper and beribboned inside another box. The postman would leave it for him to find—perhaps half-concealed by the welcome mat—and he’d pick it up with disguised but real delight. If neighbors were watching, they’d see the unmistakable silent signs of “For me?”

What was inside the two boxes, he didn’t know, but he was sure it was there. He pictured it.

This season he passed many boxes on his way home from work. He imagined their origins—a single aunt who still sent gifts to her adult nieces and nephews, the stepmother, the boss looking to ingratiate himself in some inexpensive way with employees, the student, the client, the childhood friend. His gift, he figured, would come from someone he didn’t know—it seemed the broadest category in his life—and, to be a complete surprise, the box must bear an unfamiliar return address. Hefting it had to yield no clue to its contents. It needed to be heavy. It needed not to rattle.

When he was young, his parents had no money for gifts but always found something to give him in place of what he wanted. “Something for you,” they’d say, their faces frozen just at anticipation, fearing expecting. He was always grateful or pretended he was. They pretended pleasure they’d found just the right thing. The fiction they created together still glowed warm after all these years. The gifts were gone, and so he clung to nostalgia, nursing its consolation still.

At the end of his block a sudden weariness possessed him. This day, and all his days, seemed hard, the routine of hours a prelude to rest. His parents were dead. He had no wife and only work friends. No one would be waiting for him, but he’d try to believe in domestic peace, the comfort he’d created, made of himself for himself. He sensed the vague pull of place, the contentment supposed to possess you when put aside your public self for a personal, relaxed, familiar, and relieving space. The gift would help.

He didn’t dare look yet at his stoop from so far away. Everyone taught him not to be disappointed, to lower his expectations so gratitude came inevitably. Most of the time that stance seemed natural, but something about this time of year tested him. He mustn’t compare himself to others, but they had more. He sometimes had trouble ignoring.

Involuntarily his eyes swept before him, and, though he saw a package or two waiting, none sat at his door. Elation rose and fell in the same instant. He tried to say, “Okay” without hoping the next day would be different. He liked to believe sometimes that the gift had been taken, that someone who needed it more than he did now possessed it. In the end, his disappointment ought to be immaterial, a perception he knew worth transcending.

As he bounded up the steps he thought of the mail waiting, a card perhaps or a magazine to read that would help him pass the evening quickly. The dark hours were hardest.

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On Being Dickensian

96h07/fion/3340/exp1576Others must know Dickens better than I do and must be better able to channel him, but I wouldn’t mind being called “Dickensian.” The term evokes, for me, a great and amassing gravitas akin to amber gathering antiquity in a golden orb and turning it crystal. Putting aside the man (because I’ve written about that before), his style entices, seduces, and embraces. It makes another sort of time and place entirely imaginary.

This time of year, I often reread A Christmas Carol and watch the words roll like loose cannon balls on the deck of a storm-beset ship. They head somewhere according to shifts of direction and pitch just the sea knows:

The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slyly down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. In the main street at the corner of the court, some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowing sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice.

Dicken’s prose takes its time, rolling in and out of personification—the “gruff” bell, the tower “peeping,” its “teeth chattering in its frozen head” inside clouds—and then tumbling toward some other detail of the vast scene—those laborers who are “winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture.” The vision of the narration roves, staring at each detail with equal intensity, bringing all of it into intimate focus. The “sullenly congealed” ice is “misanthropic,” caught unawares. With Dickens, everything seems caught in a beam of peculiar light, revealing itself as if never seen.

Of course I know the story of A Christmas Carol well—seemingly everyone does—and, even if they didn’t, they might know its skeleton, the tale of a lost man, the heavy-handed turn toward sentimentality as, from the dark, some barely lit candle gutters. I imagine that’s what some writers despise about Dickens, his insistence on resolution, the sort that rescues hope from deep, really too interesting, cynicism. Those writers must sense Dickens at the wheel, gripping against the wind and turning his ship too deftly aright.

Last summer, I reread A Tale of Two Cities and felt what many unsympathetic readers must, that Dickens gets his characters into trouble only to get them out. He makes few, if any, truly, truly dangerous moves and only ones that later will seem as poised on promise as disaster.

I rejoice at the end of A Christmas Carol, but I also hear desperate self-assurance in it, Dickens consoling himself as much as us:

Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms.  His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

Did Dickens hear ridicule as he wrote? Did he recognize the incredible reform and alteration in Scrooge stretching beyond the bounds of his creation? Did he sense laughter licking at him? Did he see what others might, the character’s turn is too complete, an evolution that must be anticipated to be actualized? Dickens says skeptics would “wrinkle up their eyes in grins” at Scrooge but that someone might like that as much as “the malady in other forms.” What forms? What malady? What did Dickens himself consider and experience? How did he wrinkle his own eyes, before setting them aright? Was this fabricated redemption actually “quite enough for him”?

And maybe that’s the answer to his elliptical prose. He is always approaching and retreating, trying to stay true and trying to satisfy. I love that in him, the friction under his movement—the dragging and the soaring, the hard stare and the light laugh.

When I was a ninth grader, my teacher assigned Great Expectations and I read it in a weekend, the longest book I’d devoured up until then. I remember putting it down Sunday night and regretting I’d never be able to read it again for the first time. I’ve reread Dickens—especially A Christmas Carol—many times since, but I’ve come no closer to the secret he’s keeping, whether he transcended the melancholy he hints and made more than fiction from redemption.

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Again, What—Exactly—Am I Doing Here?

doughThe other night, I dreamt of baking or, more accurately, of trying to bake. My dough reached the awkward stage when it should have formed one mass and instead insisted on crumbling cliffs of loose chunks falling in landslides, the relentless earthquake of failure. I worked the mass with a spoon and with my hands, added water and oil and a number of dream ingredients like tubbed bouillon and lemon zest. Still—no bolus, no bread.

For any Freudians listening in, I know, I know.

Even without Freud, however, this dream seems pretty transparent. It’s about the creative process, about times (like this one) when the moment calls for collection and synthesis, and nothing will satisfy more than a combination of incongruities ending in miracles. That my dream dough doesn’t achieve bread says something big and speaks to questions my recent writing raises.

Most notably, what magic will transform parts into a being?

Some nights I swing between unconsciousness and nutty, irrational, aggregating thoughts. I can’t think where I am and can’t answer how many hours I’ve “slept.” The clock says “11:17,” then it says, “12:45,” later, “3:28.” I hate these numbers and remember them. And each feels, at the time, like revelation.

Somewhere in my dream of dough I thought of Gollums, creatures assembled of clay and enacted by rabbis. My Gollum didn’t speak or walk, didn’t blink. He gave no sign of cooperation in genesis or animation. He never was, and yet I summoned him as if he’d come.

That’s faith. Even unanswered, it persists. You’re sure something must happen, if only by accident, some combination of words will form a spell.

I used to be a prolific visual artist. Every week and weekend, I’d produce a new image. Most of it was abstract, improvisational, and surprising because it was unplanned. More serendipity than scheme, my paintings arose from some deep unconscious memory or impulse. Their yeast was self-assurance and confidence the next step would swell the stuff. It’d declare its own end. I knew—or thought I knew—an outcome would materialize.

What do you do if such assurance disappears?

There’s much to be said for ambling, overturning rocks in hopes of finding something interesting beneath. That said, I sometimes long for an assignment. I’d welcome the chance to receive direction in place of supplying it myself.

A professional writer might say, “Be careful what you wish for,” but conception is tiring.  Twice a week I need a subject that mustn’t be world-weariness. I count on inspiration. I count on novelty. I’m waiting for another voice to tell me to get going on the ark or to desist building this crazy tower to God.

Maybe every artist, on some level, desires direction. It’d be nice to feel moved, to find compulsions quite outside yourself. Yet muses rarely speak. You invoke them, invoke them again, and still they wait, looking for the perfect entry. You hope, in the end, to produce something and experience a glancing brush with inspiration, and to speak.

Whoever knows if you actually do.

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Someone Who Sees

grain-electric-love-ring-diy-7Because my life follows regular patterns and others’ lives do too, my daily walk to work crosses the same people going the opposite direction. Of course, we don’t acknowledge each other, but I know them. They must know me.

One is an older man, though he may be no older than I am, just more wrinkled. He carries a notepad, reporter fashion, pen ready to record some detail worth jotting down. He pauses periodically and glances up at streetlights lit on mornings this time of year. Or he turns to the opposite side of North Avenue and people rushing into Walgreens or Starbucks. Or he dips his head and stops to read his writing, and the sidewalk traffic flows around him.

Including me. The other day, as the pedestrian timer started to count down at an intersection a block ahead, I grabbed the straps of my backpack and made a run for it. He’d just stopped. I had to swerve to avoid him, and he glanced directly at me, his pen going from still to ready. He nearly looked at me, but only nearly because, from my perspective, his eyes didn’t have time to grip my image or attend.

He wrote something down. Safely on the other side of the street, I looked back and saw it.

He wears glasses doctored by wire. Maybe the elaboration of blue and orange and gray and red and black is decorative rather than functional. His glasses are now mostly wire. They’d have to be fragmented and loose to need all that scaffolding. What he sees must be adorned by multicolored vines framing the world, so his moments of accounting come with a vague squint, as if he’s confused by which is the distraction, his job recording or life itself.

I observe him as he observes me. I can’t weave my way into other minds and discover what’s really there, but I think I understand him. We go in opposite directions yet occupy the same spaces together. His brain may be blurrier, but it’s a conglomeration of wet cells with spindly strands between them. The same arcs of impulse seize us both, though the impulses may be different. And perhaps they aren’t that different. I am, after all, a recorder too.

Lately fatigue has settled in my chest, as if my spine, tired of bracing against the engine of my heart, can no longer stay its vibrations. My posture, I’ve been told, is weak. My head slides forward by degrees. My back bows. Though people often remind me I’m still a young man, I recall what youth feels like.

My alter ego hunches over his pad, his brows concentrated behind his improbable glasses, expressing the exertion in his task. He doesn’t appear tired, just purposeful. If I weren’t always anxious to do what I’d meant to do the day before, I might turn to follow him and see what he’s looking at or looking for.

I’m sure he’s crazy, another of the lost souls cities attract and perhaps cauterized by horrendous experiences I’ll never know or understand, but he’s also oddly enviable, possessed by something bigger than the accumulation of days, something bigger than his own mind.

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Season’s Thoughts

EZ 1850Q OPENSometimes I wonder if others feel as I do, like a person standing in front of an open refrigerator full of food, confused about what to want.

I read somewhere that, when you’re truly hungry, anything will do. The rest is appetite only, desire rather than need. That must be so. A healthy person appreciates what life presents and recognizes the best choices as necessities, fulfillment, not whim or chance or craving.

But, if so, then I’m not healthy, another 21st century person restless for something new. My cravings leave me feeling spoiled, ungrateful, and crass, annoying to tolerate and so entirely lost as to be hardly worth correcting. I supply internal reminders—be thankful, be thankful, be thankful. You’re lucky, you’re lucky, you’re lucky. You need no more.

Please tell me I’m not alone. As often as I prompt myself to gratitude, I still sense some deficit, something denied, and I search and search for what “something” might be. I like to think it isn’t just self-absorption. Nothing is quite right. This refrigerator doesn’t seem mine. Its contents look like a stranger’s idea of appealing, and what I’m supposed to want doesn’t match any true longing. I want, and what I expect and hope is always just out of reach, impossible to grasp.

Maybe my complaints try your patience, but listen. I wonder if I ought to be adjusting the world instead of myself. My default position is that my problems arise from my deficits, my inability to deal with what life deals me. Yet what if the world is the trouble, if thinking I’m the trouble allows the world to persist in its pathologies, to stymie all my chances at satisfaction, and to disrupt gratitude? What if I’ve been duped to accept discontent as means to more effective marketing?

Maybe my restless desire for more isn’t wholly my doing.

It sounds ridiculous to say so, but we take so much onto ourselves now: the issue isn’t what creates stress but how we deal with it, the issue isn’t the outrageous misdistribution of wealth but our own materialistic definition of success, the issue isn’t advertising but our susceptibility to it, the issue isn’t our laments but our lamenting. The real truth may be—in all these cases—both, but what does our owning so much of the problem get us? How can we improve the world if we always feel it’s we who need improving?

Thanksgiving has passed. Christmas lies ahead. Over the next few weeks, I expect to be bombarded by all I ought to want, and I expect some of it will convince me. But I’m going to try to keep the door closed, to decide for myself when to open it.

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