Category Archives: Grief

No Us Without Them (and vice versa)

771px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(detail)_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

–Chinese Proverb

This morning, I bought a French Press coffee maker and wondered at the many tongues of its instructions. Some future alien archeologist might find the guide useful… and not just to make coffee. The Rosetta Stone seems mundane in comparison.

“How far we’ve come!” I’d like to crow—barely a word remains untranslated, and humans have rendered thoughts in scores of languages. I wish I felt as good about understanding, which lags so conspicuously. We trade words in one tongue for another—what was meant, and whether we hear and accept it, are bigger issues.

I’ve read science fiction centered on the impossibility of understanding between earth and extraterrestrials, but I always regarded that as speculation—writers ask, “What if frames of reference were so different as to be irreconcilable?” More and more, however, that what-if seems allegorical, not theoretical.

Consider war and what atrocity might be happening right this instant at the point of a knife sharpened too keenly or a gun loaded and unsafetied, its very existence daring its user to pull a trigger manufactured for that specified purpose, to impose some perceived right.

Humans are awful to one another, too stubborn to admit being one species. Maybe we are capable of just as much love, empathy, and understanding as hate. Maybe I should overlook our appalling cruelties and look for common kindness and common courage.

Sincerely, I’d rather believe in humanity, but resentment seems to matter most these days—along with selfishness, lack of foresight, deliberate denial of alternate perspectives, inexhaustible efforts to preserve self-regard, and the hegemony of our own type. Some say, “I want to change the world,” “I want to love everyone,” and “I want to help.” Meanwhile others live according to “We have ours (or want ours). The rest be damned.”

And, as much as I’d rather not, I participate. The other day, visiting with a like-minded friend, I waded knee-deep in bile and heard myself railing against corporate culture. “They don’t acknowledge anything but profit!” I said, and, “How can they be so focused on abstractions and ignore the real and genuine people—with families—standing right there?”

Luckily, I had no rock, club, or bazooka. I’m not above indulging in antagonism, humanity’s true universal trait. Like everyone else, I’d love to claim the title, “The Good Guy,” but that’d be self-serving.

In our overheated media greenhouse, it’s hard not to be contentious, and crowding has us fighting over resources and territory and—especially—rectitude, the space we want most. We crave reassurance we can’t exist without defeating or denying someone else. Anything considered “A common cause” or “mutually beneficial” drowns in skepticism and laughter.

We cry, “Beneficial to whom?” and too often mean, “How does that benefit me?”

The only solution I see is another science fiction plot—reversing Babel and plunging the planet into amnesia so profound that—even if we can’t overlook visible and audible divisions of language and geography and race and bent—we could reconsider everything that, right now, feels too important to put aside… sometimes seemingly virtually everything. Then we might restart. But I’m not sure how the story would end. Forgetfulness and forgiveness aren’t human gifts.

Idealists—how I wish I were one!—will say love is potent, equally embedded in every human heart. I’m optimist enough to yearn they’re right, but, after our well-recorded and well-noted history of animosities, oppressions, class warfare, bigotry, and grand (plus petty) violence, how do we make today new?

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Passing Strange

sun-shining-through-the-trees-2179-1920x1080More fiction…

It was a forest of matchsticks, not literally but in the spent feeling of it, which he suspected came more from him than the place. After they’d eaten, he’d said he’d go for a walk and left before anyone volunteered to join him. The others were laughing about one of her stories when the screen door slapped behind him. The sun just approached the horizon, its rays taking the longest path to his face and shining with faint attention. He walked into it and then away from it on a twisting course, half squinting, un-squinting.

She didn’t love him, he felt that now. Nothing she’d said told him so, but her gaze bounced off him. Once they’d engaged eyes, but this visit felt oblique. She guided his best friend and his best friend’s wife with her hand at their elbows, navigated them about the kitchen, dipping in and out of zones set aside to chop and assemble. He watched. She offered him a role but in her sergeant’s voice. Affection found no place. Back in his apartment, she spoke still more instructively, and this public echo seemed painful, hurtful.

Likely it was not. He told himself so as he found his direction. The wood’s hints of wear offered many choices, each turning toward or away from a destination.

They’d spoken about not coming. “They’re my friends,” he’d said.

“It’s okay,” she answered. That was right.

Since they met, he’d hardly shut up. He spent every moment carrying future conversations, amassing observations and editing for wit. He knew exactly where she might laugh, the twist that would move her to touch him, to kiss him.

Who could say when he stopped being right? If he was right—sometimes he imagined the same light in her he’d seen before. He’d wanted to talk about it, but time plowed through every impulse. He always lagged just behind.

He’d thought of asking if she loved him, but he felt it forbidden territory. His closest approach was to encircle her after lovemaking as if he meant to absorb her like a part of himself. She sighed. He wondered what that meant—relief, contentment, resignation?

Whatever it was, he couldn’t know if it was her or him, this remote spot or his own remoteness. Though evening was well underway, heat lingered between trees, the last light tangled as between the teeth of a brush.

Ahead, the pale sky promised the openness of the lake, the familiar cabin. Even from there, he could hear voices, and he emerged with familiar dread. Birds quieted now, or he stopped listening. The wind wheeled in new directions. He knew he had to go in.

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Not the Post-Independence Day Message You Hoped For

superman-citizenship-1303916053While visiting Canada two summers ago, I learned Superman renounced his American citizenship. Apparently—I don’t follow Superman anymore—he wanted to be a citizen of the world instead of belonging to one nation.

Or so he said. Was he just being politic, eluding the fall-out from admitting he no longer felt proud of being from the U.S? Judging his feelings by my own, I wonder, was it really Superman’s queasiness about “The American Way”? Could he no longer group America with “truth” and “justice” as he once did?

I can’t be as diplomatic. Aside from wishing—almost involuntarily—for my fellow Americans’ good fortune in international sporting events like the World Cup, aside from feeling special affection for those who risk their lives for American ideals, I’m not patriotic. Oh, our history includes grand aims. Our founding principles inspire me, and our experiment in representative democracy evinces noble intentions, maybe the most enlightened espoused up to that point. Our people, despite seemingly insurmountable struggles and a system increasingly rigged against them, remain determined to make the American Dream true. And many Americans affirm my hopes for altruism and self-sacrifice.

Yet recently I’ve felt ashamed. It isn’t just that we’ve cheapened liberty by transmuting it into the freedom to profit or that we’ve placed the needs of the quite well-off above others, it’s that we’re duplicitous, espousing values we don’t follow—consciously (and seemingly systematically) informing the disenfranchised the system is working just as it ought to, was meant to.

Harsh, I know, likely to land me on an NSA list, but idealists make great cynics. The business of business dominates American discourse. The corporation is not just a citizen but the first citizen. Shareholders and employers eat first, and employees are force-fed a steady diet of cant. “You’re lucky to be working,” they’re told and “we can’t afford to raise minimum wage.” Meanwhile CEOs net in an hour what the average worker makes in month. The brave few who, Oliver Twist-style, step forward to ask for more receive cold comfort. “If we allow unions or pay you more,” they hear, “we’ll go out of business, and your job and everyone else’s will be gone. We’re all in this together, right?” We can’t even tax those who benefit from short-changing others because, despite considerable contrary statistics, they’ve renamed themselves “job creators.”

In the past, Americans asked government to protect them, and the president and congress served to monitor and police industry and curb the excesses of capitalism. Many politicians are still at it, but others say social programs and the muscle of government won’t help, that, in fact, any restriction or handout is bad for U.S. citizens. What Americans need, they say, is “opportunity” and opportunity arises from unregulated growth and tough-love self-reliance. Yet, in American English, opportunity often translates as looking away. “We need less government!” shout those who ought to know better. A cursory scan of American society tells us the majority (which we pretend is our most wise and reasonable perspective) doesn’t stand a chance against the moneyed interests of the self-interested and self-absorbed. Though materially and statistically well-off, this minority shouts at each infringement on their right to amass more. They purchase megaphones to assure they drown everyone else out. They’ve set aside their life rafts, after all.

The Canadian newspaper that brought me news of Superman’s ex-pat status included a point-by-point analysis of how difficult it is to rebuke American citizenship. Perhaps Superman could grease legal wheels, but I suspect more and more Americans feel as trapped as I do. Our nation can’t acknowledge the need for reform, much less create it. We’d rather watch fireworks, charge the iPhone to our credit card, and congratulate ourselves for pretty ideas that, each year, vanish from our reality.

Someone made money on those fireworks, the same way they made money on that patient or that student loan or that prisoner or that gun or that access to oil or that foreign invasion or that special amnesty from pursuing higher ideals and caring for others. I don’t know how Superman feels, but being born here doesn’t inspire me to love that.

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15 Chapters

img_05862This story was rejected for publication. Who can say if a rejection letter is worse in content or form? The content is—a given—bad news, but the form, intended to give comfort or at least not offend, often has the opposite effect. The generic manifestation:

Dear You,

Thank you for submitting “Your Title Here” to the Our Title Here. We had an exceptionally large pool of over XXXX submissions. The editorial staff was impressed with the consistent quality of the work, and we struggled to choose. Unfortunately, your submission was not selected. Please Read Our Title Here on this date to discover our choices.

We hope to see your work again in the future!

Best regards,
Us

P.S. To subscribe to Our Title Here… website

How the supplicant might read this letter:

Dear Spurned,

It’s easy to thank the unsolicited, and we get a shitload of said unsolicited. If it makes you feel any better, yours was consistent with all the rest of the rejected, and we were pretty damn pleased we received so many (feather in our cap). It was hard to go through them, but we did. Unfortunately (we’re saying “unfortunately” but our decision clearly indicates, from our perspective, NOT) your submission was rejected. Please blunt your disappointment with money in our direction.

By all means, waste our time again if you like!

Best we can manage regards,

Us

Bitter? Maybe, but what’s wrong with “Listen, not this time, but don’t give up. We know it sucks to get a letter like this one…”?

Oh well, here’s the story anyway:

1.

On an errand some years ago, he found himself lost. He’s been trying since to make his way home. At first he seemed near. Each fresh vista promised landmarks to lead him back, but little seems familiar now. He glimpses a tree outstretched or a low-hugging cloud. They could be from before or a memory from this journey, he can’t be sure.

2.

The day he departed, he left his love in bed. Dipping his face close to hers, he watched her eyes flutter under their lids and wished he could join her in sleep, in dreams. “I’ll be back later,” he whispered, and let his hand rest on her upper arm, naked above the covers. She didn’t wake. He’s sure she didn’t, having so many hours to revisit the scene, but she did moan, and in her moan, he heard their desire.

3.

At first, some of each day was knocking. Few people answered, and those who did opened doors just a sliver, their bodies blocking golden, glowing interiors where, sometimes, other curious faces lurked. On occasions they spoke instead of shaking their heads, they loaded their directions with distrust. He heard reluctance and couldn’t remember beyond the third change of direction or the sign he was supposed to know on sight. He couldn’t go back to ask again.

4.

He leaves doors alone now and is well past crying out. Having used every name he’s ever known, his voice has died, its squeak no more than vocal chords rubbing. He said his love’s name most, and, in the end, his mother’s. Before he set out though, before he took whichever wrong turn, his mother was already gone. Even after all these years, he still sometimes imagines her form up ahead, back turned, bowing into her hands and sobbing over his loss. That, he supposes, is a wish. In life, she wasn’t demonstrative. In his old world, she never seemed surprised to see him.

5.

When he was young, a measure of pride arrived if his parents called him “Little Man,” as it meant he’d stood up to some unanticipated injury or fury, dammed his tears, been complete in himself without needing instruction or help. The name brought him closer to separation he sensed they desired. They seemed exhausted, and his deepest affection was to grant them peace, let them rest. One dim afternoon, his mother waited at the door when he came home, and she said his father was gone. For a moment, grief stood before him—amassing as unaccountably as a wave—but he squared his legs. “Little Man,” his mother whispered, and turned inside.

6.

The neighborhoods he passes through are orderly. Houses reach a natural average, less different with every reiteration. Windows stare back blankly, bored. And the streets’ angles of north, east, south, and west are razors. He turns like blinking. Suddenly the sun is behind or ahead or rising.

7.

No matter what he does, the world goes on. A day comes when birds sing again, or he notes their songs again. There’s pleasure in those moments’ thaw and the softening air and earth. The slant of sun across his face is revelation. “If I’d learned to pay attention,” he thinks and sighs. The intake of breath plants him. If it placed him were where he wishes, he might be happier, but he only ever wanted to be happy enough.

8.

Not very often, but sometimes, he stops. Pausing in the blue shadows of dusk, he takes inventory, checks to see if he wants to keep searching, how much hope remains. He always goes on because the sun rises and sets. The cycle of days and his mind run furrows scored by habit.

9.

Dreams visit randomly. In one, he turned and stood on the walk leading to his house. He closed his eyes to be sure he was awake. When he opened them again, he detected someone moving in an upstairs window. The shadow shifted like a ghost. He knew (without knowing why) that it was his love. He had waited to find her, and she’d waited too, was even then rushing down the stairs to let him in. He woke weeping, his wet cheeks having ended the dream.

10.

He may be home now. Had he chosen wandering, he wouldn’t care about living in this overlap of spaces. Home would be an idea easily carried. His trouble is expecting recognition, someone to say they’ve seen him before or someplace announcing he belongs.

11.

As a boy, he wanted a horse, and that fantasy returns often. Then, he knew not to express such extravagant needs, but he feels a right to it now. When he was young he consoled himself by being the horse, galloping, forming lazy S’s in imagined meadows. More than anything else, he delighted in the twitch of musculature, the power and purpose and stateliness and certainty. The horse was his, he thought, and he was the horse. They shared honest love. He believed his daydream as only children can.

12.

Every step leaves a little behind. Fatigue rises tidally, and eventually he’ll close his eyes for good. The darkness that awaits him may or may not be welcome, may or may not be familiar, may or may not be final. But he has his desires, which he dares not state, even to himself.

13.

One memory lingers—his love’s breath. He smelled the spices she loved and, occasionally, he discovers some echo of them in fallen leaves or the faint smoke of someone’s fire. A light rain can raise the scent or sudden warmth on a winter afternoon. The day he left, that smell hung about her, clinging to her warm skin, and, though he felt embarrassed by the rapture it incited, he took it in. Of everything he misses, that matters most, just that much of her.

14.

Another turn looms.

15.

And night. In gray twilight, he recognizes streets beginning to settle, a sky assuring snow.

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Trespassing

Today, fiction:broken-window2

“A stack of photos”

He didn’t need to say it. His brain labeled what he saw, and he was alone. Yet, something said he should push his voice into the air, so he did.

These pictures didn’t belong to him and captured moments he never witnessed. They depicted strangers, and, though he felt something in the smiles, he was sure he’d feel more if he, like the photographer, turned a camera to returned affection.

His mother once took photographs on Easter and Christmas. Evidence had long disappeared, but they’d been a family. His father stayed over. He slept, as other fathers must—he thought—in bedrooms dim with sleep and company, curtains heavy and drawn, light seeping only where privacy allowed. So often, on Saturday mornings, he’d found his mother and father entwined. Before it became just her.

After his father left for good, she snapped at him. He might fight back.

This stack of photos described time. Some of the subjects aged, and the places seemed somehow aged too, as if they’d absorbed the colors of an era—harvest gold, avocado, a gray indigo no one liked much but chose anyway.

He shuffled rectangles and found so little to impede him. “Yes, yes, yes,” the images slid by, greased by months and years insisting on progress.

“You bastard,” he said. He hit a patch where the same woman’s face stuttered through frame and frame, neck tipped back, eyes half shuttered, smile stretched because nothing, nothing, nothing restrained it.

One evening, his sister asked, “Do you remember how she was with him? Did she love him?”

He said, “Yes,” less out of belief and more because his sister desired an answer.

When she invited men home, he knew not to believe. He looked into their smiles and sought warmth. He found need akin to his own, expedience.

Tilting sun and fading will told him he must leave soon, but he’d seen no image he had to have, no moment irrepressible, no intimacy to borrow. He hated taking just anything when, if he waited, at any moment, the choice might land as in a saddle, perfect for galloping.

The usual panic rose. He’d be seen, known. Slipping past image after image, he saw lives piled in undifferentiated masses, misery compounded by desperation, desire by short-lived satisfaction, dreams by waking.

He chose nothing to carry away. He swept past the broken lock on the sliding glass door, through the yard, over the fence and into the alley. Looking left and right, he spied no other soul.

He went on.

 

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Thursday Haibun (Episode Two)

basho-loc-01518vAs I wrote last Thursday, I’m celebrating NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month) by writing haiku and prose in haibun. The entries below are yesterday’s attempts. The numbers communicate how many I’ve written so far.

xli.

Many days I pass the same man begging. I know his name now—Jimmy—and he often asks for money by saying, “Make Jimmy happy.” Though I’m sure I can’t, I give him a dollar, easy enough for me to spare, a greater source of relief for him than for me. When he shakes my hand, I feel the leather of his palm—winter, summer, a life outside I don’t know. When I smile, he recognizes the sign and smiles back.

His eyes never smile.

this hour

sun takes cover—buildings

won’t hold light back

One day, walking to work, having just given Jimmy his dollar, another pedestrian doubled back from just ahead of me.

“You shouldn’t be giving him money!” he said.

I said nothing.

“He spends it on crack! He’s a crack-head. I know. I was on it too, and he said, ‘Give me some money, I’ll bust your ass!’”

Anger streamed from him. His expression stretched, neither smile, nor snarl, nor surprise. He touched me on the upper arm.

“Sure,” I said, “I hear you.”

at intersections

waiting for clearance—the street

slick with weeping

 xlii.

I suppose it’s nothing special that after some runs—during the time I was really running—steam rose from my shoulders and chest as it does from horses. I felt like an animal.

What must I do to have that moment happen again?

sun glances

from the lake’s horizon and

stops ascending

 xliii.

too early,

your voice blunders into quiet—

we both know now

I wonder if you sensed us stepping around you. The evening creeping from the sliding glass door drew the ornate shadow of the la-z-boy’s reach. Your neck, vulnerable, rolled like a snake to the side. You snored.

“let statues lie,”

she said, as if choice lay

with them

xliv.

In another life as a sleeper, I run from words. They seem too plain to evoke. They define and refine until they speak exactly. Say what you will of abstraction, it eludes reality and the relentless chore of logic.

from the window,

a rectangle of light, marking

a far wall

In a recent dream, I spoke to the freshly departed. They entered the room one at a time and greeted me as old friends even when we’d barely spoken. I tried to be polite, offering what I had, which, in this dream, was a pair of mittens and a broken wine glass—the base, the stem, and half the blossom.

wind ruffles

open books, smiling pages

touched

Finally I settled with someone I didn’t know, exchanging phrases and listening enough to pick up the twisted thread of precedents.

you read loss,

lines of levels dropping—

eyelids half-fallen

Closing time arrived. I rose to leave. I shook a hand I wasn’t certain I knew. I left a card on a table, sure it wasn’t mine.

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Bleaker Than Fiction

348sMy condition has no name I know. You might call it “impatience,” but that label seems too generic and mild:

  • I race through all the instant view options on Netflix, half reading each, without settling on one, or, settling finally, watch ten minutes and say, “Stupid. Unbearable….”
  • 625 pages into the 779 pages of The Goldfinch, I find myself irredeemably bothered and think, “Enough.” I can’t stand another mistake, another boneheaded decision.
  • My wife says, “You have to watch House of Cards!” and I do, only to find I can’t watch more than thirty minutes before anguishing over events that make me want to howl.

Empathy is the most flattering explanation. “If only I didn’t feel so much!” I think, “I might not be so bothered by every downturn and mishap!” I say. “It’s just that Pete Russo was such a good man,” I reassure myself.

Truth is, I’m an ice cube in a frying pan, spinning in the steam of its own disintegration. Empathy has less to do with my state than raw discomfort, agony akin to mild electrocution… willingly, deliberately, undergone.

As a boy, television used to agitate me profoundly. The Beaver’s next blunder would certainly send me running into the kitchen, and every Brady seemed, at one time or another, bound for humiliation. Even Petticoat Junction might lead me into baffled territory. My hand over my eyes, I wanted to retreat to a corner, hide myself from myself.

You might think forbearance might grow—certainly my exposure to literary and cinematic turnarounds should have grown. The outcome always settles on a steady note, experience ought to tell me. Yet, with age, my condition worsens. I try to figure it out. “Think of yourself in a room sealed tight,” I say to my wife, “when you pull the door closed, you trap another gulp of air and it’s too full and the pressure jumps. It’s too much.”

“Huh?” she says.

Maybe this is the problem, I think: I’m indulged. I’ve grown accustomed to the proper fit of circumstances, controlled environments where fulfillment is assured. I want complacency, worrylessness, satisfaction, pleasure. No challenges please, I’m tired of those. Give me candy.

I try convincing myself each strange development won’t be that strange or may even enhance my satisfaction when events, improbably, reverse. The present calamity could—ultimately—delight more than frighten. “Give it ten minutes,” I say, “then decide.” These fictions aren’t happening to me. I should stand above, drolly saying, “How interesting.”

The true issue, I say, is faith…or faith and courage… or faith, courage, and remove. When you believe in a positive outcome, suffer bravely through seemingly hopeless moments, and stop to breathe outside the fiction, you’re fine.

I’m not fine. Theo kicks drugs, he picks them up again. Finally, the poor influence of Boris is gone, and Theo runs into him on a New York street. Kitsey gets caught in infidelity, and Theo might easily leave her for Pippa—we know he loves Pippa best—then stays with Kitsey because Kitsey says, “My mother loves you. Leaving me will kill her.” I want to hurl the book and might, if my wife didn’t put her hand on mine and repeat, “It’ll be okay. I promise.”

I sometimes wish I lived in a naïve fantasy where everything, everything, everything will be so okay in the end. Maybe it will, but this world, the one I live in, is depraved, and nothing in reality persuades me (enough) fiction will be different. Nothing I experience convinces me, “Believe!”

 

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