Tag Archives: Home Life

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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Danse Russe

“I am lonely, lonely. haring4

I was born to be lonely,

I am best so!”…

 

Who shall say I am not

the happy genius of my household?

 

William Carlos Williams,

“Danse Russe”

Lately, the philosophical question plaguing me is whether solitude is the natural state of humans… which says something about the state I’m lately in.

It’s July and, as a teacher, I don’t report to work. However, my wife still leaves each morning, my son lives elsewhere, and this summer my daughter has a job in the wilderness of Wisconsin. Between seven am and seven pm, email, Facebook, and the internet generally keep me company. With my sabbatical ahead, I forecast a long stretch of similarly uninterrupted solitude for the next 14 months.

Scientists believe they’ve answered my philosophical question definitively: humans are not solitary, never have been, and, in fact, experience changes in genetic expression in response to social situations. Where scientists once believed you were stuck with the genes you possessed at birth, they now recognize the environment, including the social environment, can turn on certain genes and change traits thought immutable. Research indicates people who live alone develop suppressed immune systems and manifest marked changes in genes linked to depression. Abused children with access to support outside the home, for instance, show–genetically—less sensitivity to stress and trauma. Closeted gay men fall much more rapidly to AIDS than more connected victims. Solitude, science says, is bad for you.

I’m not naturally social. In that great divide between those energized by company and those taxed by it, I’m squarely in the second group. A day of teaching runs upstream against my disposition, and, by the end of the workday, I have no talk left. As most people do, my wife looks forward to parties, guests, and visits. I try to. I remind myself how much fun I’ll have, how good it will be to reconnect with friends, how exciting meeting new people can be. Nonetheless, my apprehension grows. Almost involuntarily, I experience a kind of dread.

I’m no recluse. I love most humans and seem to function well in public. Some people, I’m always surprised to hear, say I’m interesting, even charming. Still, solitude is easier.

There’s a difference between solitude and loneliness. Solitude is a choice. Loneliness implies unfulfilled desire. A solitary person likes quiet, enjoys controlling his or her time, and finds productive and satisfying ways to spend what may appear to others empty hours. In contrast, a lonely person feels lost in a desert of time and wonders where the oasis is, where life-sustaining company might be, right then. Solitude evokes strength, self-sufficiency, autonomy, confidence, and completion. Loneliness stings. It never feels right and elicits resentment, bitterness at the thought of being dismissed or neglected.

I aim for solitude, but its border with loneliness wavers. I consider calling people so we can get together, then I give the idea up as weakness—they have their own lives and could certainly call me if they wished. I shouldn’t impose. I remind myself of my good fortune, the time to read, and study, and think, and write. Then, when I’m not looking, the switch flips. I feel excruciatingly bored and forgotten. The day begins with journal writing, a to-do list, an hour or so of studying a psychology text, and work on my latest creative projects. It ends with Netflix, iPad games, and anything to pass time before my wife (finally) walks in.

If I complain, she says, rightly, “Do something about it.” And I say, “I should.” Yet, the next day, I return to the same strategy of making the most of being alone. Sometime soon, I may scream. In the meantime, I structure my new solitary life like a dike to keep loneliness out. I mean to keep loneliness out.

A researcher named Steve Cole has devoted his career to studying the physical effect of social isolation and has discovered that, even more than stress, “Social isolation is the best-established, most robust social or psychological risk factor for disease out there. Nothing can compete.”

Scientists may have answered the question of whether humans are solitary, but my own experiment continues. My days negotiate self-reliance and desire, fellowship and autonomy, productivity and yearning to hear another voice. Nothing seems so immediate and real as this battle between being myself and being part of something. Even this post is a skirmish, a surrogate for conversation, piled earthwork, more effort to occupy time.

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Thoughts of a Struggling Diarist

photo 1-33Lists of famous diarists run many pages, going on so long you begin to believe anyone who desires merit must keep a diary. I know I’m confusing correlation and causation, but journal writing has been urged upon me so many times, there must be something to it… that so far eludes me.

In my backpack I keep a notebook where I occasionally jot ideas. It includes recommended books and movies, sentences revised and re-revised, odd overheard statements, and strange sights. My attempts at a daily journal, however, typically fail. A few days in, I ask why I’m telling myself what I already know or why it’s vital to describe in tiresome detail events that just occurred and hardly seem worth remembering. Writers laud journals as practice, which certainly makes sense, but my skepticism rears. What kind of practice? My audience, myself, will accept any old thing, and, though he’s unimpressed with the familiar, gets little else. If I perform the way I rehearse—which most people do—journaling won’t create brilliance. Quite the opposite.

I never re-read. Though writing-to-think is a valuable process, my journals meander in the dark, prodded by obligation, trying one direction and another and hoping, half-heartedly, to trip over treasure.

If you’re a journal-er, you’ll say my problem is the author. I do wonder—if I can commit, will I discover how life changes when I record it? Since school ended, I’ve been trying again, scheduling a regular visit to a blank sketchbook filling up with scrawl and doodles. The secret, I tell myself, is to think of this journal as a savings bank where investments in self-examination will grow.

According to Susan Sontag, it’s “Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb and illiterate.” For her, the journal is not a place to “Express myself more openly than I could to any person,” but a place where, “I create myself.”

“People who keep journals have life twice,” Jessamyn West said, and Anaïs Nin called her diary “My kief, hashish, and opium pipe… my drug and my vice.”

One of my former colleagues kept journals and, during one of his free periods each day, covered exactly one page. I watched, without reading, as he somehow spent thoughts to die out on the last line. He didn’t share his entries with me or anyone and said he had shelves of journals dating back to the sixties that he never, never, never revisited.

His writing was, I’m guessing, a continual reshoring, a levee preserving his sense of himself. Without reading a single entry, I picture him reassuring, encouraging, redesigning. In my imagination, he plans how to be, his range and domain.

But my experience so far tells me I’m romanticizing. My entries are dull, larded with worries about productivity and self-worth… which, it turns out, are often the same thing.

Virginia Woolf said she’d like her journal to:

Resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art.

I’d like that too. But how do I become Virginia Woolf? How do you ask so much so regularly? How do you battle the relentless, regular tide of personality? How can you try so hard when no one watches or cares?

These mysteries I can only settle over time, I tell myself. Right now, my journal feels like investment, pretty in its script and drawings… but vapid. I have almost no interest in history, being able to say on such and such a day such and such happened, but then what am I interested in, what steady voice emerges?

“The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one,” Joan Didion says, “inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.”

Maybe my journal writing will only become important as it approaches compulsion, as it embraces no justification beyond blind obsession.

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Watching

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother short fiction…

He read once about a philosopher so circumscribed by life he spent most of each day seated at his desk looking out one window at the same church steeple. At his own desk he notes how, since the tree leafed out, he can see just a wall of green.

No matter. He isn’t a philosopher and sitting at his desk mostly means paying bills or answering email, the television babbling to his wife’s nearly perpetual clatter.

As a young man, he had thoughts. He wrote in composition books sporadically and imagined his words being found among his effects when he died. He fantasized his ideas would awaken scholars who would scrutinize and deconstruct every phrase and declare them brilliant. They’d also lament—their eyes wet with intellectualized empathy—he never knew he’d be important.

Those journals must be somewhere in the house, stored inside a box inside a closet. Every once in a while he thinks he’d rather not be embarrassed by their discovery. He means to destroy them, but the impulse pops up too sporadically. Other priorities supplant it, and they remain, somewhere.

In the the winter, before the leaves return, he looks at neighbors’ homes across the street. They emerge and return according to schedules he never learns, but he knows them down to the idiosyncrasy of their locomotion. He knows their clothes—their winter coats, at least—and who pairs with whom, which dogs go with whom. He pretends he understands them, writing their stories in his mind… which are really his stories.

This time of day, the sun directs its attention to his desk. The stapler and the plastic cup of pens draw monstrous shadows, and sometimes he spreads his first two fingers to create a colossus striding among them. So many of the tasks he means to perform at this desk remain undone.

Soon his wife will call out, “Dinner!” and he’ll make his way downstairs. He considers how he’s arrived here, how her smaller summons speaks to the larger one leading to this desk, this life.

He taps a key or two and sees he’s accomplished a little. Petty achievements offer paltry pride, but, nonetheless, he looks for satisfaction in doing. He means to be in the world and not explain it, though he once hoped he would understand. Doing, he tells himself, is his better fate.

Another couple of items on his to-do list completed, he sits anticipating dinner. “It’s not so bad,” he tells himself, “to be so well fed.”

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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.

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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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Thursday Haibun (Episode Last)

basho-loc-01518vIt’s no longer April. Still I’m offering the last of my haiku and prose in haibun. I’ve been writing one (or so) a day as part of NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month). The entries below are the last attempts I made in this exercise.

lxxvi.

koi curve

beneath the surface

flirting

If I bear down, I remember watching my children draw and the way concentration collected in their faces, especially heads and brows lowered as if more shade might make paper more visible. Maybe I’m inventing, but a scent returns. It’s tempera mixed with dried sweat and the day’s weather clinging to their clothes.

My son once loved volcanoes and drew countless versions of truncated triangles spewing fire and dripping red that divided over and over like tree roots to the mountain’s base. My daughter sketched birds flattened by her conception to resemble the warning shapes affixed to windows. Past their form, they became an excuse for elaborate coloring.

she sees

dimensions in blank planes

and fills

Somewhere is a box containing my children’s art, ages 2-11, and I evoke it sometimes when I can’t sleep and begin mentally cataloging memory. This box doesn’t close as most cardboard boxes do. Its top is like a tray with walls and lifts on and off. When you remove it, you hear a faint but audible suction as air rushes to fill the new space created. The white surface, yellowed by age, shows signs of tape added and removed, scuffed to brown where previous seals lifted the surface layer off. Written on top, in sharpy, in handwriting I’d recognize as my own, is “Kids Art.” As far as I know, no one has looked inside it in ten years. I remember the box better than its contents. I can’t say exactly where we’ve put it.

Containers move with my family, so that—gathering things again—I encounter boxes that once held copier paper from my first job or bottles of a spirit now evaporated from the marketplace. The sides and top display three names, two crossed out: bedroom, closet, storage.

three a.m.—apartments

stacked in towers beam

rest or worry

lxxvii.

My dreams often intrude on sleep, scratching night’s table like an absent-minded vandal who doesn’t want to spell and doesn’t want to speak. The meal never arrives.

that blood is

your artery’s extremity

diverting once more

lxxviii.

a neglected play,

this classroom map—plot and

characters swimming

My ninth grade history teacher taught me geographical terms I tried to inject in conversation—never in the way they were meant to be used. Few arose naturally in my flat gulf coastal hometown of La Marque, Texas anyway. Instead, I’d toss them into remarks just to see if anyone might call me on them. “That’s an especially veldt shirt,” I’d say, or “I’m pretty sure question seven was the most escarpment one on the quiz.” Or “Isthmus watch Star Trek tonight.”

after a storm

earthworms litter the street

like relaxed numbers

Of course the kids in my history class called me out, but everyone else did too. People might ask, “Excuse me?” or “What did you say?” but they might also say, “You’re using that word wrong.” If I asked how I should use it, many said, “I don’t know… but not that way.”

My best friend did me one better by inventing an alternate means of describing teachers in geographical terms. My English teacher, for instance, sometimes combed his butte before class or exposed his heath by leaving one too few shirt buttons buttoned, our science teacher, who was fond of wearing gaucho pants, always drew her mohair cardigan closed in front to guard her too ample pampas, and our gym teacher wore gray coaches shorts barely long enough for his eastern peninsula.

whispering—

a hissing broadcast

losing air

When the history curriculum left geography for actual events, my friend’s experiments with metaphor and innuendo sought other terms, but I’m sure I learned something.

drunken spider,

your wheel won’t roll

or window close

lxxix.

You had cats, plural, but I only met the one you proffered the time we sat together on your couch. I think you might have said more to the cat than me and all of it in a cartoon voice I didn’t recognize. But sitting there, I wasn’t someone I recognized either, and you recognized that.

statues’ shadowed eyes,

noses hooked to block light—

sundials

lxxx.

My younger brother did most of the manly acts in our family household. A Boy Scout, he paddled Canadian lakes and at home he road his bike to the levies trying day after day to catch a 50 lb. alligator gar on 25 lb. test. When he succeeded he gave the gar away and rode home again. He played baseball. He watched hunting shows on Sunday morning.

And I wished to be so manly, but each expedition found me trailing along, imitating the acts of others, and making transparently small talk.

a puffed cloud,

its strut behind a mountain

pretense

If my mind were a house, I’d stand in the doorway, most of my thoughts turned inside, and longing turned out.

lxxxi.

sewing machine

pecking— its engine clearing

its throat—attacking

No one ever convinces anyone else to stay for long. The loops including two people bound by pleas are threads. The fiber cuts, strains, and snaps. The bed divides. The night tugs.

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