Category Archives: Nostalgia

Seeing Surprises

WheIannmen my son was very young, he told me he’d drawn a dragon on his play table. They weren’t his first marks there, so I needed to know what color he’d used to find this dragon amid the commotion of his earlier flailing. He held up a green marker, the color of new moss. I saw shapes in green, unclosed boxes, drunken circles, sinuous lines attached at one end.

Then I recognized what he meant. The shape was the first real, perceptible thing he’d drawn. The dragon was there, its eyes and scales and a second color—a lurid red—fanning from its mouth. They were flames, he said. I saw that.

Next week, my son graduates from college and a similar revelation lurks—funny how individual days amount to something recognizable at last. All the evenings at the kitchen table sighing over math problems or another wacky paragraph of The American Pageant or an online physics quiz led to something too, his graduation from high school four years ago.

But that I witnessed. Now I only see college pictures—he’s dressed up, standing with friends at a party, or hidden in sunglasses attending some sunny celebration. I don’t see him work or study, don’t experience the marks of knowledge and understanding amassing and something forming in the mess.

Over the phone, he sometimes tells me about a class, paper, or lecture but usually impatiently, always assuming—rightly—my limited comprehension. I like to think he believes me capable of understanding, but I’d have to be there to truly get it. Not being there sometimes seems the central quality of our new relationship, and, of course, I miss him.

And, thinking about his graduation is a little like realizing every mark on his play table is one unnoted image. When children are born, no one says you’ll discover they’re strangers. No one mentions the alien things they do and make and think on their own, quite apart from anything you give experientially or genetically. No one says they will surprise you or that, ultimately, it’s all surprise, a cascade of shock starting with the first identifiable word.

I know my son is anxious about what’s next, and in these times I don’t blame him. His mom and I are nervous too, but mostly we’re proud, happy to accept whatever credit people want to give us for who he’s become, but well aware he’s responsible. His voracious curiosity began the moment he opened his eyes and has hardly paused since. He and his sister are the brilliant lights of our lives.

Once he learned to speak he talked all day, from the moment he woke to the moment he slipped into sleep mid-sentence. Like any parent I still see that little boy when I look at him in tie or tux, but I also know everything he’s made himself. I’m sure he worries it isn’t enough, and some employer will ask for more. I hope he can put his apprehension aside and pause to celebrate his accomplishment. My wife and I care less about what others might want from him and more about what he wants, his continuing desire to learn and do and play and work and feel.

We are in awe of our beautiful stranger.

7 Comments

Filed under Aging, Ambition, Anxiety, Art, College Admissions, Desire, Education, Epiphany, Essays, Home Life, Hope, Identity, life, Love, Meditations, Memory, Nostalgia, Parenting, Play, Resolutions, Thoughts, Tributes, Visual Art

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Aging, Apologies, Doubt, Epiphany, Essays, Friendship, Grief, Home Life, Hope, Identity, Insomnia, Laments, Letters, life, Meditations, Memory, Modern Life, Nostalgia, Recollection, Resolutions, Silence, Solitude, Thoughts, Time, Worry

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

3 Comments

Filed under Aesthetics, Aging, Ambition, Art, Desire, Doubt, Dreaming, Experiments, Haibun, Haiku, Hope, Identity, Insomnia, Kenko, Laments, Meditations, Memory, Nostalgia, Place, Play, Prose Poems, Recollection, Resolutions, Texas, Thoughts, Time, Visual Art, Voice, Writing

Another Exchange

ptg01511781We weren’t the only Marshalls in La Marque, Texas. Others lived on the opposite side of the highway, in another part of town we seldom visited and were encouraged to avoid.

I knew Kirby and Landis, two of the other Marshalls, because they were in my gym classes. We lined up beside each other when Coach read the roll, and sometimes Landis would pick me for a team when I was left over. Otherwise, we seldom encountered each other. He was black, and I was white. In La Marque, that meant nearly everything.

Still some strange surname solidarity must have moved him to choose me. I wasn’t tall or coordinated or strong, so I wasn’t always wanted. Seldom, really. The one athletic ability I did have was speed. My genetics or running from my angry brothers made me fast, and, even if I couldn’t snag a spiral or hit with a racket or kick a rolling ball, I could almost always catch someone or—more usefully—flee.

Once in eighth grade, during the track and field unit, we were making relay teams, and Landis urged one of his black friends to pick me for their team.

He leaned toward his friend. “Honky’s fast,” he whispered, loud enough for me to hear.

But his friend wasn’t as generous as Landis and passed me over. Landis ran the first leg and put his team well in the lead. My team, though they weren’t as good, were game, and, by the time I received the baton on the last leg, we were only twenty yards behind. The boy who’d rejected me was ahead, and, when I saw that, a familiar surge went through me.

Back then, the strangest element of running was knowing. Sometimes I saw someone in front of me and just knew where I’d end up. When I felt that unaccountable certainly, I ran faster. Races often fulfilled a script my mind wrote, with little or no doubt. I wish that were still true now.

It took me nearly the entire lap, but by the time I reached the final turn, I was even with Landis’ friend. On the home stretch I pulled away and won. Over the last twenty or thirty yards of the race—when the outcome was truly known—I heard Landis in the infield laughing and shouting at his teammate. “I told you, man! I told you, man! You can’t beat no Marshalls. You can’t!”

If this event were an afterschool special, Landis and I would become best friends, but I only remember handing the baton to Coach and going inside, dreading the shower he’d make me take. Landis and I must have been on teams together after that—if I had a chance to pick him, I’m sure I was smart and did—but I can’t remember a single conversation between us.

My family left La Marque after my sophomore year in high school when my father took a new job in North Carolina. I didn’t fuss because, then, La Marque was a small place you might know nearly everyone. We all attended school together from the beginning of time and, if you wanted the salt from the next table, you found the name to ask… even if you hadn’t uttered it since fourth grade. So leaving and dropping into a world of new names seemed exciting.

Those last, odd couple of months, my younger brother and I ran summer track, and one of our sporadic teammates was Kirby Marshall. My brother may know if Kirby and Landis were related, but I didn’t. And didn’t ask. Yet I begged our coach to put us on a relay together because I thought it would be funny to go Marshall to Marshall to Marshall to… I suppose I had some fantasy that Landis might join us.

I didn’t know Landis outside my imagination, wouldn’t know how to find him, wouldn’t know how he might react to being found.

Yet, in my head, we talked. He explained his living wherever I dreamed he did, and I talked about my neighborhood and all its odd characters. I told him about my dad, my family, the inadequacy I felt living amid expectations, and the absence of any true friend. He understood.

He was imaginary and had no other choice.

When we left town, he stood among the ghosts I’d miss most. I’d never really known him in any meaningful way at all.

I think sometimes of people and picture them at this, very, moment. In another world, Landis and I might lament our divided lives and wonder how much we lost through disconnection. In that separate dimension, we might be real friends.

2 Comments

Filed under Aging, America, Desire, Doubt, Essays, Fiction, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Nostalgia, Place, Recollection, Running, Thoughts, Time, Worry

Empty Bed

empty_bed_in_an_empty_room_ii_by_aimeelikestotakepicsAs I’ve said before, I’m not particularly gifted at fiction, but sometimes stories occur to me, and I write them down.

She leaves him sleeping, but he isn’t asleep. With his eyes closed he assigns meanings to each zip and snap. When she steps in front of the window, a shadow like a wandering cloud overtakes him. The mattress dips. He hears her putting her feet into her shoes, imagines her pausing at the mirror, waking her hair with her fingers, tilting her head to her left and leaning toward her reflection, rubbing the smudges under her eyes as she does, giving up, and then walking out. At any point, he might speak. She might speak. Neither care to.

They’re friends, but lately they’ve acknowledged this mutual need and the convenient means to fill it. Sometimes, in the throes, he detects a low strain of melancholy in her voice, and he thinks she must want more from him than release, or a release greater than this. Sometimes she reminds him: if she finds someone, they are through with these nights.

And he agrees. When the door closes, he swings his feet to the floor and finds it welcomely cool. These first moments are an untangling—complications resolved in cascades. He’s hungry now and will eat.

They met in middle school. She wasn’t so beautiful then, with odd glasses and braces and a shape stretched mid-growth and not yet full. Still, she seemed perfect, and he averted his eyes when she caught him looking. He engineered ways to line up near her or stand at the same lab table. From the beginning, they laughed apart from the rest. All day, as bells moved him from class to class, their last conversation lingered, and, later, when they spoke again, she remembered what he’d told her. They were experts in each others’ lives.

Through it all, he felt grateful, indebted. She had boyfriends in high school—and some girls had been interested in him—but their friendship never suffered. She still called late. He still gathered thoughts he meant to tell her. When they met again after college, each brought a new store of experience to share. Only recently have they stopped really talking.

When he opens the refrigerator he sees she’s taken the leftovers. He has eggs, the little butter remaining, and a jar of salsa. Enough.

His friends didn’t believe him when he said he’d never kissed her before six months ago, and he was immediately sorry he’d said so. He doesn’t talk about her staying over. She doesn’t forbid him—she wouldn’t—but he always knows what she wants. He doesn’t always like it or like knowing, but he does.

In the years they lost each other, he reinvented her, imagined new warmth between them. During his loneliest hours, she was his fantasy. Now these are his loneliest hours. The touch between them is a sort of ache. He can’t remember how it started.

One day she’ll have news. She’ll meet someone or find distant work. They’ll have a last dinner between them and laugh. Old stories will be aired, and she’ll say again how much he’s always meant to her.

He wonders what he wishes she’d say. He eats his eggs and stares at the blank face of his phone.

8 Comments

Filed under Apologies, Desire, Doubt, Ego, Experiments, Fiction, Friendship, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Metaphor, Modern Life, Nostalgia, Resolutions, Silence, Solitude, Thoughts, Time, Worry

12 Thoughts on the Tranportation of Affection

touching-11.

“Crush” seems an odd word for infatuation. Even if you don’t carry it to its full violence—imagine Giles Corey being accused of witchcraft in Salem and dying after two days of being “pressed” by heavy stones—a “crush” speaks to an inescapable position, some burden demanding extrication, impossible somehow to bear.

Which isn’t the way we use the word. We deploy it to describe our most innocent affections, and we verbize the word—to crush. We blunt it with prepositions so we “crush on” someone and elude anything like love… or lust.

We try to flee.

2.

My high school girlfriend was a twin. She and her sister were cheerleaders, and when they dressed identically on game days and no one could tell them apart, my friends asked if they had ever tried to “switch on me.”

My girlfriend and her sister never considered it, I’d bet.

When you know someone, the faintest gesture communicates. Their eyes don’t point as they might, or a hand rests on a table wrongly, or that smile isn’t quite complete. When you know something, it’s continually defining itself.

3.

I wonder if any age or condition makes you immune to crushes. But wondering, I suppose, is admitting I’m not immune—despite being happily married and probably too old.

In my defense, we over-define the word. A light touch or glance may initiate an infatuation. An economy of expression, the mellifluence of words, a simple sideways move to catch a falling object, a half laugh—all might start a crush.

4.

Before Netflix began distinguishing different family members on an account, my viewing habits built a very strange profile. My children howled over recommendations we received for romantic comedies or Bollywood.

“What are you watching?!” they’d ask.

Sheepish evasion followed. How do you admit such an addiction to sentiment when you’re supposed to be educated and beyond such twaddle? Saying I liked to see him or her won was tantamount to confessing girlishness, the worst sort, the sort that screams at the Beatles or tacks Teen Beat photographs to a wall.

5.

I’m unambiguously straight, but some of my worst crushes involve other males.

My daughter rolls her eyes and says, “You’re having a bro-mance” when I say I admire a colleague or wish I were closer to some man I know.

“The way you talk about him,” she says, “it’s so effusive.”

I’d deny her claim if I weren’t aware of it myself, a thrill at making a connection, a sense of some link forged in mystery long before actually meeting.

I’d object if I didn’t enjoy being somehow swept away… by anything.

6.

In the end, I don’t think having a crush and lust are at all the same thing.

7.

I’ve been watching the series “Chuck” and find I’m quite uninterested in most of the comedy and most of the spy stuff. I skip forward to see how close Chuck and Sarah Walker get to kissing.

My certainty they ought to be together expresses a broader wish everyone so baffled by indefinable connections might find their way to their desired, and perhaps denied, destination.

It’s better to think of the world as moving toward joy. I like to think it is.

8.

No one would call me “romantic” in either a literary or colloquial sense. My wife might say I’m sporadically attentive, and the planning and vision that goes into Valentines Day or anniversaries largely escape me or at least challenge me.

My genuine moments of sentimentality and affection feel like water spilling from overfull cups. They can’t be stopped, and who really wants to?

9.

What would life be without ambush, the surprise of a face to meet your own?

10.

I fell in love for the first time in fifth grade when I saw a classmate performing a baton routine to “Jingle Bell Rock.” I didn’t understand how anything else could be so perfect.

11.

Have you ever felt yourself instantly attached? She or he turns to a light or sound, and the change somehow captures you. “This,” you think, “is it… a grand awakening, a dimension entirely invisible before now.”

You want to believe, that’s key. You are looking for some touch that isn’t physical, some attachment impossible, made of implausible affection.

 12.

The odd contacts sting. You mean to reach for something commonly desired—a tool or object—and find one another instead.

It won’t last and may not be real, but it feels so.

What in us lusts after these ends? Why do we want surprise so much?

12 Comments

Filed under Aging, Desire, Essays, Experiments, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Memory, Nostalgia, Solitude, Thoughts, Valentine's Day, Voice

A Drink With My Brother

DRINKSI’ve never been as patient as I’d like to be, and recently less so. The blame rests partly with the pace of my life, which seems wired to split my attention and atomize my every attempt to ease my fretful existence.

Technology makes relentless activity possible, and none of us can do anything about the electronic landscape—the toothpaste is out of the tube, ground into the carpet, rubbed onto the walls, and diffused molecule by molecule into even the most remote parts of the world. But technology is not all the problem. You can shut devices down for a few hours. The issue is recharging yourself as devotedly as you do your devices.

Instant and ubiquitous access, gratification, and flexibility mean time has few anchors. I drift according to what I feel like doing right now because it seldom matters when you do anything. Life’s simple pleasures sometimes seem unimpressive because talking to friends, seeing movies, or playing games can occur any time you desire… and nearly all the time, if you desire that.

Lately I’ve been thinking about those regular social events that enticed earlier generations to celebrate life more deliberately—their high teas and tea ceremonies, their Sunday dinners with family, their ritual chores and seasonal obligations, their extended family picnics, even their network-mandated TV viewing.

Once you had to watch when things were on—though that would be annoying for us, it compelled people to spend time together and share common experience… and without multi-“tasking” on phones, laptops, and iPads.

Some people keep together time sacred, but I don’t. So last weekend, I sent my brother a proposal to start a remote cocktail club. We can’t meet—we live in different cities—but we can share making a drink even if we can’t drink it together. Each week, one of will offer a drink recipe—the more elaborate, the better—and we’ll try it. Not together, but we’ll share our outcomes. Just talking that much, I’m embarrassed to say, will necessitate communicating more than we usually do, but it will also hold us responsible for one weekly celebration of life. We’ll expand not only our liquor cabinets but also our knowledge and expertise. We’ll learn something, and possibly more than just how to make cocktails. We’ll slow down long enough to do something frivolous and fun.

You, dear reader, are welcome to join us. I’ve created a blog to record our journey, A Drink With My Brother: The Adventures of Two Not-So-Savvy Cocktailians. As the mission page says, “Big things start small. Maybe a few more casual celebrations can make the world a calmer place.”

One weekly cocktail won’t slow the unremitting rush of my life, but it’s an experiment worth trying. It will be strange (and nice) to schedule a little revelry.

1 Comment

Filed under Aging, Ambition, Blogging, Essays, Experiments, Gratitude, Home Life, Hope, life, Modern Life, Nostalgia, Play, Resolutions, Survival, Thoughts, Writing