Tag Archives: Time

Jenny

rooney-mara-thomas-whiteside5Another character sketch. Another exercise. This time, I started with this picture of Rooney Mara and then wrote from that. I’m not sure what I’m doing with these yet…

The two hours before dawn passed in half-dreams and worries. A couple of times a voice seemingly outside Jenny’s mind spoke nonsensically—one silly pronouncement, like “It’s too cold for that!”—loud, as if she still shared the room with someone. She took these random pronouncements as signals she’d fall asleep again, but noticing them meant awakening too. Lately inattention required will, effort to elude and escape her thoughts.

Jenny tried not to look ahead to a midday meeting with her boss and instead recalled a high school hayride. One of the boys in her English class, a football player and avowed Christian, asked her out, and, worn down by the many times he’d tried, she agreed. She pictured the truck idling in a scrubby field at twilight. The scene reduced to that openbed truck, and the other couples—they were all couples—huddled under blankets amid hay bales, breathing exhaust. Jenny didn’t know the month exactly, but the chill of winter lay weeks away. During the ride, a sheen of sweat gathered on her legs under the blanket. She remembered that. The boy’s arm over her shoulder felt like wood, like the yoke the oxen wore on the cover of her US history textbook.

Her husband died in spring. At the wake, Jenny’s brothers and sister repeated how mercifully short his illness was. He’d been going to the gym daily before the diagnosis and, even in his final week, his eyes possessed their usual vitality. Up until the end, as frail as his body became, he still seemed young, joking that he’d finally lost those few extra pounds he’d been trying so hard to shed. She laughed because she thought it might make him happy. Just after he’d gone, she left him with his family and went outside to cry, the first light of the pale sky impossible to bear, its ill-timed beauty taunting her.

“You have to be ready,” he’d said the day before.

“I know, but let’s not talk about that.”

“Tell me you’re ready.”

“I am… but don’t want to be.”

This morning, Jenny opened her eyes to light and roused herself. The alarm hadn’t sounded, but an early start meant missing traffic. Her closet seemed spacious since she and his sister cleaned it out. Jenny laid the new blue skirt, a blouse, and her underthings over the rumpled covers of her bed.

She sighed as she turned the shower on. Her work had fallen off—her last review was not nearly as glowing as ones from last year—but her boss would be sympathetic, asking how she was “holding up” before turning to instructions repeated with a pleading expression she’d come to hate. She’d prepared for that day’s meeting until very late the night before, assembling a presentation full of statistics and new marketing plans. She shouldn’t have to bring work home, she knew that, but revising her resume and reaching out to contacts used up hours too. Jenny felt tired of driving, tired of working.

Water met skin like summer rain, tepid and gentle as another day began.

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Irene

20140410-18043552Today’s post is sort of character sketch for a story I’ve been mulling over…

Irene awoke from dozing, the book in her lap finally registering as weight and heat. Soon she’d make dinner, and somewhere in the preparations, her thoughts would light on her husband, how his sigh or grunt signaled his feelings about the meal she’d planned. He was dead ten years now, and she was free from that. But Irene heard him nonetheless. It wasn’t that she missed him, just that he echoed, especially in this solitary space.

Her daughter called earlier to report trouble at work, a new boss who didn’t think much of women, and Irene listened as she always did, with more concern than interest. Her days stretched out, not as her cat did—as if trying to release something locked—but, desperately, as toward the finish, its desire dawning as it reached completion. From the instant she roused, Irene thought of ends. She worried she’d taken too good care of herself and might last forever… or that she might at least outlast her money, which might be worse.

Her daughter often talked of her marriage, but, as her mother, Irene couldn’t really know her son-in-law. She never had much to add. She appreciated he fixed things and paid stiff deference to her age. She liked his laugh and valued his efforts to make her life easier but felt too tired for affection. Commitment like that was beyond her. Irene found no room for warmth. That stage passed.

Instead, Irene wandered in books. They were better than the babbling TV, and sometimes their emotions affected her. They transported her a bit, lifting her to moments she remembered but never discussed. She hadn’t always been old, after all, and couldn’t help returning to images of intimacies that might horrify her children. She didn’t dwell on men who never worked out, but the romance novels she read could recall their hands and the way her own heart rose to meet theirs. Once, her stakes climbed in arousal. Sometimes she still wished for risks younger women take in riding to the brink of release.

She counted three weeks since her son’s last call. Like his father, work possessed him, and, when he did call, his mind seemed absent. “Uh huh,” he said, until the sound became an empty rhythm. As a boy, he’d always been distracted, his eyes focused on places and people far from here and now. He was always excusing himself from the table to do something important. She might have known his future entirely then but hoped for more. “A son never loves his mother enough,” Irene’s mother said, and Irene tried to believe it.

Shadows lengthened across the carpet. Irene’s husband would have said, “The drinking lamp is lit.” Glancing at her watch, she wondered if she might have another bout of sleep before pulling herself from this chair to make dinner. Her husband never allowed such lassitude. He wanted every destination clear and another meal in the offing.

Irene closed her eyes, purple afterimages blooming and fading like bruises.

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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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On Will

spockWhen I first watched Star Trek, Spock affected me most. Captain Kirk was bolder, Scotty more resourceful, Bones more lovable, but Spock’s cool calm made him enviable. At the time, his logic was my ideal, and he sticks with me still.

In one episode, “Amok Time,” Spock experiences all adolescence in a fortnight—pon farr, a rage of hormones so intense that it floods him with lethal levels of adrenaline. The episode opens with Spock throwing Nurse Chapell’s offering of soup against a hallway wall. He composes himself long enough to request a leave of absence to visit Vulcan but can’t say why. Kirk agrees, then, when diplomacy moves Starfleet to divert the ship to another planet, Spock must admit his problem is “biology,” a need to mate as powerful as a salmon’s swim upstream. He says “biology” with such shame it’s clear he wants nothing to do with inconvenient bodily processes, emotion, or expressions of personal desire.

The first time I saw the episode, that’s what I wanted too, complete control over longing, the power to suppress every impulse. Spock tells Kirk that pon farr, “Stips our minds from us, brings a madness which rips away our veneer of civilization.” My veneer has never been glued down especially well and, back then, it kept getting ripped away by innocent teasing, by precipitous attachments to girls who never liked me enough, by thundering anger and sudden unaccountable tears. Even in pon farr ‘s throes, Spock remains articulate and controlled, exactly the sort of adolescence I sought.

That yearning for self-regulation has hardly left me. Even now, I engage in daily staring contests with acts that require self-discipline—willing myself to work out, to count calories, to write in my journal and sketch, to work on my next blog post, to create a to-do list each morning I’ll pursue all day. None of it will abide looking away. Spock never blinks, and if I do, some lazy, inconvenient, momentary urge wins over will. And, being less than what I want to be, I lose.

In “Amok Time,” Spock hopes to be spared his biology but, in real life, who can truly avoid feeling? My negotiations with emotion seem melodramatic, but the issue can’t be uncommon. I’ve learned, as Spock does, “The ancient drives are too strong. Eventually they catch up with us. We are driven by forces we cannot control.”

“It would be illogical to protest against our natures,” he tells Nurse Chapell.

I know that—and know how ridiculous it is to look to Star Trek for adolescent survival strategies—but, at that time, everything in my family felt like a contest to me. If you idly balanced a yardstick on your index finger, someone could do it longer. Someone could hide in a smaller space for more minutes or think of another name that began with B or present some trivia you didn’t know or ride a bike around the block faster. I obsessed over being or doing just one thing better than my siblings.

As I was a volatile child, the contests involving self-regulation had the greatest stakes—who could finish an ice cream cone last or win a game of “The next one to speak is a monkey for a week.” When an advertisement for Lays Potato Chips claimed no one could eat just one, I watched my family consume the whole bag before I crowed victory, my uneaten chip in my palm under the table. I counted licks of a Tootsie Pop without biting it… many times. I meant never to indicate anger or disappointment. Inevitably, I failed. So I tried harder.

My days repeat (and repeat) the age-old contest between stoicism and hedonism, debates over whether life’s purpose is nobility or pleasure. Most people let pleasure win, which goads me on. No one will regard me as lax or accuse me of choosing the easy way by going with the crowd, giving in, or giving up

Something won’t surrender—I’m determined, productive, diligent, ruminative, and not particularly happy. It hasn’t made me particularly any emotion. Most days I just tire and can’t push my sled anymore. It’s quite heavy and lacks dogs, nice slippery spots, and hills to coast down. It’s a blocking sled, really.

Instead I worry time has spent my inner Spock. My handwriting shows its age. The arches of n, h, and m have melted, the loops of o, p, e, d, and b are closed to daylight, and the lifts between letters drag, tripping at each attempt to leap another height. Once I took pride in writing neatly, fluently, and legibly. Penmanship was like any art—any activity—and required practice of the right sort, the kind that includes consistent effort and willful vigilance, commitment to do more than good-enough.

Though I like to believe I’ve abandoned Spock, scanning my handwriting reveals haste and capitulation to fatigue and utility. I can make-out what I’ve written—it hasn’t come to that yet!—but I can’t stand to look. “I used to try harder,” I say, “where has my discipline gone?”

The conclusion of “Amok Time” seems laughable now, typically Star Trek, with its philosophical overtones drowned by gaudy sets, Dutch angles, transparent stunt-double combat, loud soundtrack music, and a deus ex machina. Spock survives his pon farr, forms another tie with Kirk, and gets a smile out of it. The madness of Spock’s amok time, Bones says, may be “The price [Vulcans] pay for having no emotions the rest of the time.” While that certainly makes sense, the melodrama seems staged. Deadened feelings, numb routines, amplified editing and denial are just as likely costs as explosive outbursts.

My experience tells me so. Even now, Spock is at my shoulder whispering to buck up, toughen up, and shut up and, this late in the series, who could exorcise him?

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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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As Far As I Know

conversation-with-godYou won’t hear me talk about God much. I think about Him or Her or It—sometimes obsessively—but generally don’t know what might be reasonable or useful to say. We each have some vision of who God might be and what God might want from humanity and for humanity. Yet others’ notions seem clearer than my own. Mostly I want to avoid fighting. Too many of us are ready to argue, even battle, over ideas of God that, to me, seem fundamentally unknowable. We contest distinctions that, by their definition and by our nature, elude human understanding.

I’m not saying others’ beliefs are fiction, mind you, just that I wonder how we can know if they are or aren’t. For me, the gulf between belief and verity is too wide to bridge. The devout fill me with wonder and—when their perspective fosters tranquility and love and understanding and tolerance and higher purpose and goodness in the world, I’m envious. I honor their faith and appreciate how much God and religion mean in their lives. However, the question of how they know what they know never leaves me. When zealots’ confidence leads to saying I, and everyone else, should think as they do, I balk. I hold very few views assuredly enough to urge them on anyone else.

Atheists who say there is no God at all seem equally bullish.

The Catholic church helped raise me, taught me Biblical narratives, instructed me on the proper way to live, and coded perspectives that are probably too deep to sort out. However, I’m not a Catholic now, partly because my churchgoing habits waned and partly because all churches appear so vividly human to me. Their stories are human stories—if they were divine they might be incomprehensible—and something desperate lurks in them, some affirmation, justification, or rationalization that, had it come simply from ourselves, wouldn’t possess the gravity and consequence needed to influence others.

If there is a God responsible for the immense order, chaos, and beauty of the universe, I’m sure He or She or It occupies a space we can’t grasp. I read a science fiction novel recently that centered around “Hypotheticals,” responsible for an immense, verifiable change in the operation of the planet. One of the main characters was very ill and the narrator, his friend, lamented that the Hypotheticals did nothing to spare him. The main character replied,

I don’t blame them. They don’t know what’s happening to me. I’m under their threshold of abstraction… you and I, Tyler, we’re communities of living cells, yes? And if you damaged a sufficient number of my cells I would die, you would have murdered me. But if we shake hands, and I lose a few skin cells in the process, neither of us even notices the loss. It’s invisible. We live at a certain level of abstraction; we interact as bodies, not cell colonies. The same is true of the Hypotheticals. They inhabit a larger universe than we do…

Getting enlightenment from science fiction embarrasses me, but I have to admit this speech—clumsy as it is—resonates with me. It makes sense that any God would live on a level of abstraction above our cellular one. Any God holds a vision so broad our narrow lives could see only an infinitesimal sliver of it.

There’s no knowing, after all, whether you and I even live in the same world. We see from one perspective with our peculiarly human sensory apparatus. It’s logical we’d believe, as any sane person must, we’re looking at reality. Yet, though you may tell me I’m mistaken and I might say the same to you, neither of us possesses an infallible means to convince the other.

We are trapped on this human-sized scale. DNA travels with us, might shout at us all day and, though we’ve learned to scope inward and outward great distances, we still may regard DNA as separate from ourselves, apart when, really, we share the same space. We understand it differently, DNA and I, but who’s to say who’s right, or if “right” is an actual thing at all.

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It’s Okay If You’re Not Listening

imagesA fellow blogger once told me, “Don’t expect too much from summer.” She meant visitors, not summer in general.

She’s right about visitors. Something happens in June, and those WordPress bar graphs flatten to foothills. My first two years of blogging, I worried I’d said something so heinous no one liked me anymore. Now the summer lull is a familiar pattern, and, being a grizzled veteran of the sport of blogging, I accept readers’ attention wanes when the weather encourages healthier alternatives to reading angsty, self-doubting prose.

You can hardly look at an overcoat when it’s boiling out. I get that.

In fact, I more than accept the quiet. I relish it as a resort town must sigh through October or the babysitter must claim the whole couch between lights out and parents’ return. It’s not that I relax so much as I don’t worry about relaxing.

Blogging and publishing offer very different companionship. Real writers must imagine readers. In contrast, bloggers can usually guess how crowded the room is and adjust their volume and tempo, maybe even whisper because more intimate speech is okay right now.

Over the last six months or so, I’ve sent some writing away, and all of it has returned with “No thanks.” So perhaps I’m telling myself summer’s drought shouldn’t be ego-killing the way those rejections are. The alternative is believing I have nothing to say. Maybe I have nothing valuable to say sometimes, but I do desire speech. I want to say something.

And a strange relief arises when less is at stake. The less important the end, the more enjoyable the means. Why not be experimental or confessional or meta-conditional or plainspoken?

Writing is like swimming. It’s strange imagining someone inventing a way to cross a river, but someone must have. Conventional strokes—freestyle and breaststroke and butterfly—have well polished efficiencies, and they work. They aren’t the only means to reach another shore, however. Trying other methods might be embarrassing, but you could dream up something if you didn’t worry about looking like a fool. Plenty of brilliant writers master conventional syntax to compose lovely prose, but others revise the rules. Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Joyce all swim oddly.

Probably because they didn’t care and worried little about readers—who readers might be or how they might react to their beautiful fumbling.

Our MFA age is more homogenous, full of MacPoems, MacShort Stories, and MacNovels acceptably well structured, thoughtful, and forgettable. Hell, you might be reading a MacEssay right now. The “focus group” and “workshop” sometimes seem oddly named, as they often center on acceptability instead of vision or idiosyncrasy.

“I don’t mean to be mean,” I hear a classmate criticizing Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, “but aren’t these opening pages just a lot of throat-clearing?”

Fumbling isn’t always beautiful, but it’s more human than self-consciousness generally permits. I realize all my efforts to “get myself out there” and “learn what editors want” may improve my work because I’ll learn to appraise and revise what’s invisible to me now. But solitude—or an intimate gathering of friends—can be helpful too, especially if I can become comfortable with throat-clearing as I learn to sing.

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