Category Archives: Place

On Being Out of Tune

n02Today is my birthday, and I’m looking around wondering where I’ve landed.

Everything falls into four categories for me these days: things I know, things I guess, things I know I don’t know (and may never), and things of which I’m (still, after all this time) entirely ignorant. Growing older and knowing more should quiet the other categories, but, mostly, I guess. Ignorance may not have diminished a decibel—it’s hard to say. I’m not wise. I’m out of tune.

When I walk I think, and lately I’ve been doing a lot of both. Though we’ve already experienced chilly weather in Chicago, chairs and tables remain outside restaurants, pedestrians crowd sidewalks, and people linger at windows eying what’s inside. Despite congregation, walks leave me lonely. I wouldn’t eat or drink streetside without an occasion. I recognize almost no one else. I can afford little in those stores, and most of what they sell belongs in a different life anyway.

As a younger man I anticipated future confidence and self-assurance, but, on these walks, others’ knowledge seems greater than mine. They look more comfortable and animated as they chat with companions or on their cell phones. Their strides appear purposeful. Clearly, they aren’t walking to think—as I am—but to get somewhere. They don’t guess destinations. When I try to detect our common humanity, they seldom look back, rarely make eye contact, even more rarely smile. I’m so alien I imagine myself invisible, sharing streets with the ghosts asking for money at corners.

I’d say this estrangement is an outdoor phenomenon except that I sense it no less online where, because human contact has no place, social interaction is a shadow play. I like, you like, he or she likes, but without investment or consequence. The volume of such muted and largely impersonal transactions defies recall and creates one continually washed-out present. It’s silly to be nostalgic for general stores or neighborhood pubs or small town main streets, but I think I might accept guessing in more reassuring company. At least we’d know we’re all a touch dissonant. More ordinary lives in my life might assure reality isn’t bigger than any capacity to understand it.

We’re so often outraged—intolerant of deliberation, angry… but too impatient to plan for futures more distant than the present news cycle. We continually urge a response, a decision, some action. Not to be ready is to lack initiative and leadership, to betray weakness. It won’t do to discuss, as words are just words. Musing is absolutely out. Thoughts are immaterial without practical or remunerative applications.

We ought to share more than vehemence.

One of the dog walkers on my block is especially friendly and has a loud voice. Sometimes, when my window is open, I listen in on his conversations with neighbors. They say little really. They verify last night’s roof deck party was loud and late, or they laugh over some poor pooch’s latest mishap. They gossip and make small talk. Yet, though I never participate, these exchanges do more for me than I can say. These aren’t friends meeting, exactly. They won’t settle anything. They’re humans communing, affirming what they know and guess.

At such moments, I’m grateful I have non-Facebook friends in my life, ones who hear and understand my doubts, who appreciate my desire to know more, who might touch my hand or throw an arm over my shoulder and walk with me.

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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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School, The Place

Amanda-Fire-Alarms-768x1024As I’m on sabbatical this year, I’ll be missing the opening day of school for the first time since 1962 when I was three and not yet old enough.

Because I’ve been through 32 school starts as a teacher, I know what will happen. Students will lope down auditorium steps, dressed in new clothes to fit their continually new bodies. They will talk excitedly without being obvious… or at least only to the point of being properly obvious. Some will look left and right for the safety of faces that will beam back recognition, then wave.

Teachers, they’ll largely ignore. Teachers will line up somewhere seen, maybe along the sides, or will shepherd students as they’ve been instructed and pretend to be unbothered by another year of conspicuous invisibility.

The hubbub will resist a few attempts at quiet, but the initial syllable of the initial solitary voice will assert that all these minds and hearts and hands and bodies are actually one school. Every opening day is a new start and reunion. At some point, the gears will catch and the machine will seem to have been in constant operation, but, for a few minutes, possibility reigns.

School is a strange place, a part of the world and also apart from it. Even the most unconventional school follows basic conventions. There are teachers—however overtly or covertly they’re involved in educating students—and classrooms—whether they take recognizable form or not. There are some students who want each teacher’s knowledge and can’t contain or hide the pleasure of learning, and some students who, though at the center of it all, watch the clock, and the whole process, with impotence, confusion, and fear.

Though school starts and ends and is only in session so long, the regular schoolhouse rhythm of hour, day, term, season, and year—no matter how it’s divided—takes over as if it were reality itself.

Doing any job for a long time defines you, but a school’s structure can become a second skeleton. When each year superimposes over the last, you see ghosts as well as human beings in your classroom. Those who once occupied this space are gone—you hear news they’ve grown up to study and work in faraway places—but they’re in the building too, in the hopes and horrors of the ones arriving… who are never so different. It’s easy for a teacher to begin believing school is the world or, at least, a concentrated version of it.

Of course it isn’t. School is also a rare enclave where people still trust unlikely outcomes and bet on personal and intellectual progress. That’s the excitement—a new year and a new day and a new class can really be new. Each year begins with hope. Though sometimes the wider world undermines and discourages teachers—telling them they’re lazy part-timers or cast-offs stupider than those they’re hired to teach or misguided dinosaurs hiding from real life behind yellowed notecards—no teacher without faith lasts long. I still have faith.

My experience tells me the first day will be exhausting. My colleagues will go home feeling as if they’ve survived a prizefight, but they’ll be restless as well, already attending to the next day. I won’t miss the relentless pace of my school, the snow of papers falling from September to December, January to June, or the constant news from outside that teachers aren’t good enough.

Clearly, I need a rest, but I’ll miss the aspirational DNA of school, the ambition that is mortar to the bricks. My uncrowded life will certainly be quieter and less frantic, which is quite okay, but maybe lonely too. I’m over the idea I’m affecting eternity, but I’ll miss students who, amid the hubbub, hope their teachers will have something important to say.

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Filed under Aging, America, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Hope, Identity, life, Meditations, Memory, Place, Sabbaticals, Solitude, Teaching, Thoughts, Time, Uncategorized, Work

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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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.

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

20 Sentences on Order (Out of Order)

constellations (1)Today’s post is really an exercise or experiment. I wrote 20 sentences and then rearranged them using a random sequence generator. I did it three times but decided on this progression because it seemed least sensible. If you want to read the sentences in the order they were first written, they’re labelled with their original numbers.

2. Stars won’t care.

4. The romance people assign is secondary.

10. Somewhere, amid the lines and dead ends, among parts and their whole, between truth and almost that, lies space.

7. So much of what we think known isn’t.

18. It might speak its own scheme but would take me to interpret it.

9. Blocks of words stretch each of the cardinal directions and their combinations, spreading like spills.

13. We make the image by reshaping our mouths into rooms.

17. I might take a photograph.

15. But we live in our own rooms, our own libraries.

5. Place comes first, and, though we like supremacy, reading chaos as sense isn’t our best trait.

1. You can say what you wish.

11. Maybe wisdom lurks in gaps.

3. Stars wheel through the night as they always have, indifferent and mathematical.

16. Today snow crosses in the air, making instantaneous constellations impossible to read.

12. I see a child standing before a painting, forming her mouth to the shapes of words.

8. Every library contains volumes of madness, shelves of proud misapprehension.

20. What if we embraced the illusion we see?

14. These rooms aren’t anywhere anyone else might live.

6. Stars have order apart from the reason we give them.

19. And that’s after it passes.

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Filed under Essays, Experiments, Identity, Laments, life, Lyn Hejinian, Lyric Essays, Metaphor, Place, Play, Prose Poems, Revision, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Time, Voice, Writing

On Being Wayward

TO13-3Though I have a decent sense of direction, I get lost often. The maps I draw don’t say whether the scene in front of me is at the top of the page, at the bottom, or if I’m presently observing the left or the right margin. Maps’ two dimensions leave me wondering how these buildings spring from this page and what street may cut between the blocks ahead. Lists of lefts and rights and roads’ names and numbers unravel as the center line turns somewhat left and splits, both ways labeled at an angle I can’t read. Signs disappear when you’re moving. Lanes become turn-only, and you can’t turn back.

Sometimes I rely on figuring it all out once I get started—the proper course does occasionally become clear, after all—and I foolishly believe people who utter too much and add, “Anyway, it’s not hard to get there.”

Everyone else has an iPhone to guide them, and its voice speaks without judgment. I don’t mind humbling myself to ask directions, but the instructions I receive often baffle me. Then I won’t ask again. People never insist I repeat what they just said to assure I got it right, and they ought to. It’s simple enough to them, and I don’t want to make further fuss.

The world seems less complicated for other people. They don’t think twice about traveling to strange, unknown, and terrifying locales. Their faith outpaces mine, and, where I’d like to anticipate every twist—to picture it and two other possibilities besides—others love improvisation and the spots you find when you mean to go somewhere else. “Getting lost,” they tell me, “is half the fun.”

I heard an episode of Radiolab discussing Australian aborigines who embed directions deep in their language. You don’t just leave the house but leave it in a northwesterly direction, and they have a word for that. They have 80 words for directions, and instead of “How are you?” they say, “Where are you going?” I wish I could answer. For me, such certainty would be magic akin to being home everywhere.

The moment I begin to think, I begin to be lost—second and third guessing doom me most—and comfort flees like steam. It’s my directional deficit, which means I can’t borrow knowing, can’t look to be other people, won’t learn to speak Aboriginal Australian in the time left to me. The problem is in me and not the world, and I must own my bewilderment.

Leaving early helps, and, even if I arrive an hour before necessary, at least I’m there and not making torturous revisions. The idle time I earn is solace I appreciate. “Have you been waiting long?” my companion may ask. “No,” I lie and feel momentarily like someone who arrives just where he should be when he should be with nonchalant finesse.

Perhaps I’m more lost inside than out. My waywardness may all be in my head, a matter of shutting out doubt or pretending better. I’d love to believe everyone is like me and stuck without a bird’s eye view in a maze of impossible-to-read alternatives. I’d prefer thinking I’m geographically rather than generally lost. But, as the only map I have is my own, I may never know.

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