Monthly Archives: March 2014

Then Silence

two_shadows“Silence propagates itself,” Samuel Johnson said, “and the longer talk has been suspended, the more difficult it is to find anything to say.”

When I’m sleepless in the middle of the night, I think about lost friends and wince over unreturned phone calls, emails, and letters, all the thank you notes, flowers, and thoughtful gestures I meant to make to show affection. Most of the people who haunt my insomnia have likely forgotten me or think no less of me for drifting on, but life would be richer with their continuing company. I find plenty of time to work, to engage in activity I forget a few days later. I put tasks before people, and, if I could reverse that, I might sleep better.

I enjoy company and find sympathetic souls everywhere. Only recently, though, have I tried to cultivate and keep friends. Carl Jung said the meeting of personalities is like a chemical reaction—both personalities are transformed by contact. His statement only makes sense if you and the other personality are reactive, if you’re willing to venture outside yourself. Most of my life I haven’t been willing. It’s easy to converse, to slot in personal stories your listener doesn’t yet know. You rifle through relevant and appropriate remarks and, like a good raconteur, offer your most skillful talk. Or you can take the more secure stance of bouncing everything back to the speaker. Now you see. I’m well-practiced at the familiar and accepted steps of civil discourse.

But careful and polished steps aren’t dancing. Dancing is chemical and requires more than keeping up.

One of my first real friends welcomed me to his lunch table after I’d been exiled from another. Middle school cool failed me, and my usual companions froze me out. My new friend barely knew me, knew only that I had nowhere to sit and invited me over, but vulnerability proved a good place for us to start. His kindness endeared him to me, but hurt created our relationship. No purpose in pretense, we began with honesty instead.

His family invited me on vacation, he ate over my house whenever I could make him stay, and, even after I moved away, we exchanged antic letters full of imaginary schemes for becoming treasure hunters or famous tag-team auctioneers or dueling butter sculptors or engineers specializing in converting schools to bumper cars. We laughed, I think, because we knew we needed to. We were seldom comfortable except in the company of the other.

Some people believe no true friendship can ever cease, that, even after years of neglect, friends feel the same old understanding and affection. That thought consoles me at 3 am—though, in most cases, I can’t verify it. I wouldn’t know how to start looking for many of the people I’ve lost. In some cases, I remember how I felt with them and not their names. And though we might achieve familiar rapport if we were thrown together, what I’ve missed would be just as telling.

Next weekend my younger brother is going on a golf outing, and some of the people are part of a group of friends he sees frequently, old friends from high school and college he’s seen through every stage of life. I don’t care about golf—it’d be horrifying to even try playing—but I’m jealous. My oldest and best friends are, right this second, elsewhere, expecting and accepting the usual distance between us. We will talk when we talk. His friends wouldn’t let him neglect them. He wouldn’t allow it either.

After receiving a commission to West Point, my friend came home in three weeks. He wrote a letter that was meant to be funny but threw me. I wasn’t sure how I felt, how to console him or whether he wanted consolation and can’t recall now what I did say to him, if I did. Some nights I can’t convince myself I wrote back. I continued to hear reports of him—he went to college locally and then law school, he excelled in moot court and sang in his church choir. He married and had a daughter.

But by the time I looked for him—finding him was why I joined Facebook—someone told me he was gone, killed in a traffic accident a couple of weeks before. I read the obituary and thought again and again of writing his widow, his daughter, his mom. Perhaps he mentioned me. They donated a bench in Central Park because he liked to visit New York, and I could find it and sit on it.

I didn’t. I haven’t. It isn’t just that my right to speak seems lost, and that every day pushes him and our history further into the past. I’m beginning to think the best way—the only way—to honor him is to try harder to be an actual friend, the sort he was to me.

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My Honking Lament

imgThe geese in Lincoln Park are residents. They don’t migrate, or, if their flight can be called migration, only consists of travel to the western suburbs, announcing their exercise with loud exaltation, arresting pedestrians’ attention.

I wish I were so proud. My own diffidence says little more than, “Hi, I’ve arrived” or “I’m back” or “I’ve been thinking…” or “I’m still here.”

Travel isn’t something I relish, yet I know I have to leave here sometimes. I must meet the world to be part of it—no pretending musing online is being public—and life is supposed to be about greeting folks, about expanding myself through contact with genuine others.

The electronic reality I occupy suggests otherwise. The “friends” I create through Facebook and other “social” media don’t seem to seek intimacy. They appear to desire the electronic equivalent of a honking sortie through fall or spring skies, affection without heart. Noise over communication.

I’m sorry if that’s insulting, better to be sincere even when wrong. I’m guilty too.

And no wonder I’m lonely. Maybe my inability to express my feelings is my limitation. True character would insist on recognition, demanding—seeing as normal—the spouting I lid and re-lid daily. But I don’t know what to think or whether feeling is really looked-for from me. Most men live lives of quiet desperation, but what if quiet oppresses? I hesitate to say more… except to confess obsessing over all I hide, withhold, and swallow.

It’s not anger. I’m not mad as hell and can’t take it anymore. I want company, would like to be starkly myself.

Do people sense how convincingly “acceptable” overthrows “sincere”? Do others long to meet, long to talk instead of text, long to release feeling and speak rather than perform? The niceties aren’t nice, the insults more brutal by being couched.

Taking risks sounds good in abstract. Really, it’s embarrassing, showing emotion you know others—discretely or indulgently—ignore. You imagine people laughing. Derision is the modern default. The Eliot of “J. Alfred Prufrock” knew that, the Arthur Miller of “Death of a Salesman” knew that, but we’ve learned little. We devise new modes of communication to say less, in fewer characters.

Real life still awaits us—by that I mean, of course, real life awaits me—and I travel further and further from authenticity by circling, circling, circling.

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Another Attempt

One of the nicest reviews of my book was in Haibun Today. I sent it there thinking it was a haibun, but the reviewer, who I trust entirely, said no. Since then, I’ve been reading more haibun both in Haibun Today and elsewhere.

I’ve learned haibun present minutely descriptive moments, scenes, or statements. According to Wikipedia, they may “occupy a wholly fictional or dream-like space.” All haibun, however, need haiku that communicate, overtly or covertly, an essence of the account.

The four haibun below are new tries. I’m hoping to solicit my reviewer’s opinion on what I have and haven’t accomplished. I’ve included some of my art.

Clippingsedi.

Sometimes memories of crabbing return. The morning sun raised the scent of creosote from the ties of the railroad bridge, and I squatted, tugging—as slowly as I could—the package string. Either the loose skin of the chicken neck wavered like a ghost into view, or the broad green back of my prey materialized from dark. Everyone said they felt crabs chewing, but I guessed. Often, circular rainbows of fat surfaced when just meat arrived. Any hope, and I’d call my sister over with the net. She was swifter, decisive at the right instant. In the wide-bottom bucket nearby, the already captured edged along the walls, claws half-raised against their fellows.

from deep night,

lapping waves, echoes

of passing barges

glasspideredii.

A recent dream happened in many rooms, each weighted with complicated Persian rugs, ornate burgundy upholstery, blocky tables, and mahogany paneled walls. The lamps offered barely enough light to dislodge shadows. Each room, roughly the same, still seemed different, as if only this stage were suitable for this conversation. We moved from place to place, recalling what we never quite said.

sandalwood and smoke

she whispered another name

to call dawn

orchidsediii.

My anger comes out in hints, never visible enough to define. I like thinking it’s veiled by smiles.

a twist of wind

spinning and dropped, flattened,

wheels of dust

When people are mad, it feels like the moment just after someone shoves me. Their faces say distance, the stretch of a landscape moving away, but nothing happened. No one budged, though the room seems changed.

Once my mother spoke to me through a door she wouldn’t open for an apology. I heard half her words but understood I’d gone too far, said too much. Time would never settle our struggle entirely.

a blackbird chooses

now to cry—his brown notes

a song for dusk

lockworksediv.

shattered beer bottle,

afternoon sun, sparks of blindness

salting sight

When sleep eludes me, I think of it as madness I want to charm and trap. Odd but welcome associations of amber and shoes, or rust and old horses, or a gardenia blossom in a bowl and waning tides—any irrationality creeping closer—and I say, “Stay.” If I’m unlucky, sanity reasserts itself, another list unreeling or a new bulb of worry blinking to life. Around the room, points of reflection map depth and dimension. The heater breathes. On a good night, I may hear a voice as if it’s outside my mind and believe it. Then I know sleep summons. I let it. I close my eyes to join.

past midnight

buildings blend into sky,

piles of lost objects

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No Buddhist

11621426-big-golden-buddha-with-lotus-flower-at-da-lat-vietnamEvery moment, a Buddhist might tell you, possesses infinite promise and infinite futility. “Promise,” however, doesn’t imply some potentially positive future outcome but instead an opportunity to know that moment as itself.

“Futility,” they might say, is a misnomer. Nothing can be futile if you live it. Each instant is full. You only need to pay attention and accept every sensation, thought, and feeling as what life is… with emphasis on the present tense. The butterfly doesn’t resent a storm, and the storm does not object to the butterfly.

I’m paying attention. This week, as I was going down stairs I’ve traveled hundreds of times, I missed a step and, finding my foot somewhere I didn’t expect, I landed awkwardly. I turned my ankle, which I’ve done and mended many times, but this time I fractured the long bone leading to my little toe, the fifth metatarsal. I walked home a kilometer sensing what happened, cursing my stupidity, punishing myself for mindlessness, and hoping I imagined the pain.

The emergency room physician confirmed my misfortune. She said I had six to eight weeks of recovery ahead of me and gave me that look doctors often do when you’ve done something hapless, that mixture of amusement and chagrin and regret and sympathy. Sometimes they tell you they’ve done something as dumb. Not this time. Before offering the diagnosis, she said she was sorry. I appreciated that.

Apparently, my injury is quite common among the aged.

A Buddhist might not cry as I did. Exercise is such a central part of life for me, and now I face one trial as I seek to heal and another as I regain fitness I’ve lost healing. We all need challenges, I suppose, but we don’t desire adversity we haven’t engineered. As much as you’d like to be calm and accepting, you can’t help re-imagining (and re-re-imagining) the wrong second, wondering how fate screwed you over.

There’s a Buddhist parable where a farmer loses his horse and a neighbor says, “How unlucky!” and he replies, “Maybe.” When the horse returns with two other wild horses, the neighbor changes his mind, but the farmer still says, “Maybe.” The next day, one of the wild horses throws his son, and the son breaks bones. The neighbor says he’s “unlucky” again and the farmer says again, “Maybe.” Then the army comes seeking soldiers and passes over his son as unfit… you get the idea.

I’ve been stumbling around on crutches wondering what benefit might come from my regret, what test this calamity signifies. I’ll pass through grief, and that’s necessary. I’ll learn new ways to live with myself that don’t involve punishing my body every day. That’s good too. I’ll need patience, which is what I’m worst at.

Intellectually, I’m fine. I can handle it. On the other end of these six to eight weeks, I may be a better person. But right now, honestly, I feel lost.

Perhaps this event meant to remind me how far I am from becoming Buddhist. This second—this very second—I’m pissed, I’m pissed as hell. I’ll be better because I must. The next few weeks, I hope, will determine how.

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Broken

breaking-wine-glassAnother fiction...

The broken glass lay at his feet, the base a disk and the stem and bowl a threatening tulip. Looking around, he saw shards several feet away. The red splash spread everywhere.

“Sorry,” he said.

Strides carried her from the kitchen. He assumed she meant to retrieve a broom, but, waiting, he realized she wouldn’t.

When he grabbed the broom himself, he saw their bedroom door closed.

The next moment, he found himself, hands and knees, plucking pieces of glass from the wine spill, the broom nearby, watching him. When he put his palm on a fragment, he felt the alert and lifted up immediately.

The pain reached his brain and still the blood flowed from the cut as from someone else. He sat back, disgusted, unconcerned he might be sitting in his own spill.

And then tears. What didn’t trouble him: the wine glass—it’d been a wedding gift and they’d been married 25 years, the mess—he’d made bigger messes and, no matter what his state of mind, had erased them, the kitchen—it’d seen greater debacles, greater tragedy.

He wasn’t quite sure why he wept. Lately emotion came from hidden places, great streams from untraceable springs, but no bounty. He found so little to be happy about. He didn’t know himself.

She might be crying back in their bedroom, and he’d have to say he was sorry again for something that meant little but stood for more. She’d told him. He’d known how little room he had for mistakes. She’d told him.

And still the moment spun.

“I’m well aware—“

“’Well aware?’ Professorial bullshit! And what are you aware of, exactly?”

“I’m only trying to explain—“

“Excuse!”

“What?”

“You mean you’re only trying to excuseprofessor—“

He threw the glass—not hard, but he knew he did—and didn’t properly remember it. He returned to being fourteen, the fist thrown from oblivion, words spit like poison he couldn’t swallow. Once, in college, he’d discovered his hand covered in blood and hadn’t known if it was his. Once, after that, he’d opened his eyes to bodies towering over him, his jaw an ache.

Blood dropped in tears from the cut on his palm and still he collected the glass, piling pieces to create what order he could. He staggered from his knees and surveyed the scene.

“After I clean this up and she’s realized…” he told himself, “I’ll knock on the door. I’ll apologize again.”

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What Your Face May Mean

267586954_13899784671.

Recently, sitting across from a student who’d received bad news in the form of a lower-than-expected essay grade, I said, “Are you angry with me?”

At the bottom of the last page I’d written some variety of the “See me” message.

“No,” she said, “That’s just my regular face.”

“Really? Because, if you’re upset, that’s okay. I know I’ve been mad at teachers who didn’t value my work the way I did. I’ve been right where you are, and it was frustrating. Sometimes I wanted to scream… but I want a chance to explain my reaction, if you can listen.”

“No,” she said, “I understand what you said.” She paused, “people tell me I look angry all the time.”

I described my criticisms anyway. She nodded as I pointed out each misstep. She gave every appearance of attention, attention I never quite trusted.

2.

I ran into an online quiz recently that tested my ability to read expressions. Two Asians, one very white blond guy, and one African-American contorted faces in various exaggerated ways—a tilted head, corners of the mouth pulled up or down, forehead rippled or pinched, eyes sliding left, cast down, or opened wide—and I guessed among the four emotions offered for each.

But I missed a few, and my results were disappointing. The website said:

Your score means you’re slightly better than the average at reading expressions. And research suggests that people can improve their emotion recognition skills with practice. So keep an eye out for our forthcoming empathy-training tool, designed to boost your emotional intelligence. Sign up for our e-newsletter for updates on it.

 3.

Growing up in a fairly silent household, I believed I could read faces. Someone was miffed, disappointed, hurt, triumphant, blissful, full of themselves, or disgusted, and I thought I knew it.

4.

Your semi-smile, semi-frown tells me you’re unhappy with what I just said. I can tell you’re sure it’s wrong. You’re just not saying. You’ll put up with me because I’m a decent person… sometimes… but—right now, in regards to what I just said—I’m full of shit.

5.

Scientists say certain looks are universal. Every culture averts it eyes when another person approaches from a distance, and every culture raises its eyes as that person comes close. At the last moment, all of us look away.

We want to look. We yearn to communicate, yearn to believe in contact without words.

6.

I believe in currents beneath surfaces—the dimple of motion in an otherwise calm patch is the least sign of deep upheaval. That gentle whorl is a tidal cataclysm brewing. The moon and sun make war in an achingly slow withdrawal. Lapping waves are really seething, restraining themselves but ready to amass, to pounce.

7.

Like anyone who’s seen the Mona Lisa, I’ve stared at her, trying to answer if she’s smiling or not. I know all the art history stuff, how the perspectives of the landscapes on either side of her head don’t quite match and pull us out of kilter, how even the symmetry of her face is somehow—purposely, perhaps—off.

I try to forget what I’ve heard and look, really look, into her eyes. What’s in there, I want to know, what thought of hers might I match to my own, what sympathy will fuse us finally in absolute sympathy, perhaps love?

She always becomes a portrait again.

8.

Some years ago now, a colleague pulled me aside to ask what was wrong. “You look at me with such disgust,” she said, “I couldn’t ignore it anymore. Are you mad at me?” I wanted to answer “No” and “nothing is wrong” but sensed it was too late.

Can others see something in your expression you don’t? Maybe I felt resentment more visible to her than to me. Or maybe, as I wanted to believe, my face settled on an uneven spot, a fault at odds with circumstance, something that felt put out not by her but by everything.

I didn’t know what to do but to assure her she was wrong.

She didn’t say so, but I’m certain she didn’t believe me. She trusted my face and not words.

In her place, would I have agreed?

9.

“You can’t really know,” a friend said, “exactly what people are thinking.”

“That,” I thought, “is precisely what I’d expect you to say.”

10.

Maybe there’s no alternative to belief.

If I think something I don’t feel, the tail whips around to lash the head. Foolishness is denial and denial foolishness—do I dare distrust what seems, in the moment, so momentous? Do I dare, with the weight of conviction falling on me, say I’m above hunches, brains knowing more than hearts or hands can?

The creeping dawn starts in fog and ends in sunlight, morning more confused than the balance of the day, which settles on a hard stare of blue sky and heat.

If you’d asked me earlier, I might have said something different than now.

11.

When I met my wife, her eyes hit me first—so blue, but also so transparent, as if her blue were the color of truth.

12.

I took a second test, on the NY Times site , and discovered my score of 30/36 meant:

The average score for this test is in the range of 22 to 30 correct responses. If you scored above 30, you may be quite good at understanding someone’s mental state based on facial cues.

Hardly decisive.

13.

Telepathy is a favorite superpower, and my students also often choose it over invisibility, super speed, flight, and telekinesis. Someone, however, always mentions the potential noise of reading minds, the many voices you’d hear all the time, every day.

“Wouldn’t you learn to block it out,” someone asks, “the way you listen to just the person you’re talking to in a crowded place?”

“Yuck,” someone else will say, “I don’t want to know what people are thinking. Too much information.”

14.

Most of the time, I’m not really looking at people. Though we’ve locked eyes, I’m not aware of it, and, should I become conscious, I’m quickly self-conscious, outside whatever we’re discussing.

A strange intimacy arises when I recognize how engaged I am by someone’s eyes. I’m suddenly looking at my desperation full on. Something stirs.

“Here,” I could say to myself, “is lust, the purest sort, the kind that doesn’t want touch so much as tenderness and fixed understanding.”

15.

“So,” I said to the student at last, “do you get it?”

“Sure,” she said, “I can fix it… I guess I just wasn’t sure what you were looking for. I had the wrong idea of what you wanted.”

I tried, with my eyes, to tell her I wasn’t disappointed, that what I wanted was the best she might manage. I meant to say I believed her best was exceptional, that I had faith in her.

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Shrouded

Dark_house_by_F3rd4I’m so busy this week, I worried I’d have nothing to post today and actually only have this, a vignette and an exercise of sorts. I opened Chronicle of a Death Foretold to page 54 and stole (with adaptations) one sentence. Then I set off,  just to see what occurred next…

He drank the second bottle more slowly, sitting down, looking insistently toward the house on the sidewalk across the way, where the windows were dark. The night hid him, and he felt sure if she looked from one of those windows, she wouldn’t see him. But the familiar wave of vertigo rolled through his body—maybe he was more visible than the thought.

He knew how foolish he could be and how wrong he often was when drunk. He put the bottle down gently beside him, determined he’d had enough.

She might not be there at all, and he hoped instantly that was so. Why had his feet carried him there when he had no more to say and she said every word already? At first, he’d believed if—as she spoke—he held his love in his mind like a candle, she might see it behind his eyes or feel its faint warmth. His silence might speak. Staring at her house in the dark might speak.

Ridiculous. He pulled his feet into the shadows from where they’d edged into moonlight.

He knew her mother didn’t like him but hadn’t heard her speak in her mother’s voice until the last night they were together. “You have no plans,” she said, and it was true. He had no plans except her.

Closing his eyes, there in the night, he whispered, “Except you.” His voice startled him. He grabbed the bottle and took a long swallow. His head swung to the space behind him, and the world momentarily blurred in flux.

He wished again for something else to say but, anyway, he had only himself to say it to.

Down the street, a couple passed through the intersection. She laughed at a witticism he couldn’t hear and shouted, “You have no idea!” The rest tumbled inaudibly between them, her and him, all of it incomprehensibly but vividly intimate.

Once he’d said to her, “I’d like to say what I feel,” and she’d said, “Then do it” and he tried, but it never sounded right, even when he thought ahead to what he ought to speak.

“You aren’t what I need right now,” she’d said. That was the last time they touched.

Another swallow, and the bottle emptied.  He lifted it over his mouth, and a drip missed and rolled off his chin and down his neck. He wiped the tear away. He stood unsteadily, dusting himself off, straightening his pants with a tug.

Before he stepped into the streetlamp, he’d gather himself. Drunken dignity was still dignity. If she saw him, she might think he had purpose, that he was between her and someone else, marching still.

He took the greatest volume of night air he could, sighed, and stepped onto the sidewalk.

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