20 August 2017

Sunday Meditation #50: Haircut 100 (Million Bucks)

It was the first haircut in nearly two months. The first since uprooting from Kansas and moving to Maryland. Nearly two months is an eternity for hair that goes from acceptably shaggy to "just climbed out of a hamper" in the blink of an eye. It was time, and it made me feel like a million bucks. Felt good.

Walking back to the car in the cooling humidity of a rain-washed evening, I didn't think much of why I felt so good, although I savored it. By "think too much of it" I mean there was no attempt to analyze this rush of what many would call mild euphoria. Contentment. A calmness upon the mind. This is a goodness in very short supply.

Upheaval and dislocation have been the prime drivers of my depression and anxiety for over a year. Isolation and lack of daily companionship drawing the curtains on a dark room in which I could not find the door. I had light when I needed it, sometimes, when good people, good friends opened their hearts (and occasionally their homes) to me. I would not have survived gracefully moving cross-country if not for the companionship of my daughter. This lights still shines in my head.

Not to say I have yet unlocked the door. Diving into a new job turned up the heat and pressure, in ways I expected but still involve struggle for balance. Mornings require a pep talk to arise from the bed. Weeks require a therapy pit stop to relocate and recalibrate. I look for that which provides a nudge back to the path, but energy often drains swiftly away into fatigue. I know that many people say sometimes you just have to roll with it, but an affirmation of direction would be welcome.

No surprise that self-care of certain kinds took a back seat to simply making it through the day. Getting a haircut barely registered on the scale of things I needed to be present in my life. Evidence of this was the shagginess I saw in the mirror one morning last week. It wasn't the guy I used to know. He looked more like an 18th century engraving of a half-insane composer. I think my cat even gave me a few "Time to trim the weeds" looks.

The curious thing was that it took me three weeks to make a decision. Twenty one days to make up my damn mind about a simple thing like getting a haircut. A sure sign that things are out of whack from living too much in my own head.

I arrived home from the haircut relaxed, unwound. The mirror showed me a very different face from the one I had woken up with earlier in the day. It was a face looking relaxed, content, and knowing it had a million dollars in the bank of the spirit. It was the face of a human being.

15 August 2017

Be Proud You're A Rebel?

This is a bit of a long one, but it could not wait. It contains some words that are hurtful demanded by context. I submitted a version of this in December 2016, in response to "We Are Bitter, No. 2: From 2016 Forward," an essay (linked here) by Chuck Reece, editor-in-chief of The Bitter Southerner. The Bitter Southerner is a fine online magazine about the South and things Southern, in its myths, its realities, and its futures. I did not hear back from The BS (as it is affectionately referred to), but with the horrible events that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia over August 11th and 12th, I felt compelled to give it another turn in the light. It has been edited to take into account those recent events.

I was born and raised in southeastern Virginia, Portsmouth to be exact. I went to college at Virginia Tech, up in the Blue Ridge mountains in Blacksburg. Upon graduation, I wound up in Baltimore, Maryland where I stayed for over twenty years to find myself with an ex-wife, a daughter I adore, and probably nowhere to go from there. This before life got really crazy and I ended up in love again and in Kansas, where I lived until July 2017. Things did not work out in the heartland, and I moved myself back to Maryland, this time to the city of Annapolis.

To talk about a new South, a new America, we have to discuss the ugly, nasty truths of the past. The last election cycle in particular made everyone –hopefully, everyone—look inward to reexamine their consciences and outward to reexamine the cultural matrix to which they are beholden. I know I did.

To my shame, racism and bigotry were part of my upbringing. It never reached the magnitude of joining the KKK or actively seeking out the “others” for abuse and belittlement, but it was there. It was casually woven into the fabric of our daily lives. We, including myself, had no qualms about telling ‘nigger’ jokes or using it to say “those niggers” in the same way that more enlightened people would say “those folks.” You would hear stuff like that among white peers at the same time you wouldn’t actually say it to someone’s brown face.

The same shameful treatment was applied to Hispanics, Middle Easterners, Asians, the disabled, and LGBTQ folks. Equal opportunity bigotry, no doubt. I often felt uncomfortable spewing such things, but it never bothered me enough to stop myself or call out others when they did. I let myself be misled because I did not think to question it.

That is until the day I had a jarring break with the culture in which I was embedded. My awakening to what was really going on around me. An occurrence I will never forget happened in front of me as I walked into a shopping mall in my hometown. Ahead of me were two white men, appearing to be in their 20’s. Bearded and clad in a fairly typical set of work clothes that almost could have been our city’s uniform, they reached the door just as a little African-American girl was coming out.

She was probably no more than about four or five years old, carrying a toy and pushing on the door while her mother followed behind. The girl paused in the doorway which momentarily blocked traffic. Just as I came up behind the two men, I heard one of them snarl at the girl “Get outta the way, you little nigger!”

Thunderstruck is too mild to describe what I felt. I stopped while the two men pushed rudely past the girl and into the mall. To her credit, the girl did not seem to notice the slur hurled at her. But I am sure her mother heard it, because she hustled the child out the door much faster than you would expect for something so casual as a shopping trip. A few steps into the building, I had to stop a moment to collect myself.

I felt sick. A churning stomach and a racing heart catalyzed by the brush with violence and hate I witnessed. I had no understanding. How could that be? The girl was being a child, no bother to anyone, and yet these men saw fit to verbally abuse her because of her skin color? The illogic and injustice of it made my head spin. It sank in that this was how a lot of society, my society, operated, hurting others with thoughtless cruelty because they could get away with it, backed up as it was with structural and institutional racism.

The first of many switches flipped that night. I went home uneasy and sad while trying to make sense of the loathsome behavior I witnessed. It sparked the first of many years (in my teens then, in my 50’s now) of introspection and inquiry into the causes of such bad behavior and how to eliminate it in myself. I started turning a skeptical eye towards society. Intellectual laziness and lack of awareness had led me down a slippery, dead-end path. I began to question things, starting off with how I had allowed others to do my thinking for me.

I felt ashamed of the Southern way of life in which I lived. The people around me began to sound backwards. My own voice started to trouble me because I realized I did have a drawl, even if it wasn’t as deeply twangy as some of my friends and relatives. Arriving at college, I actively sought to drop the accent and even leave behind certain figures of speech. I was around a lot of different people in that time, and was self-conscious about being considered too “Southern.”

I succeeded, to a degree. In my early years out of school, working for what ended up being about 20 years in Maryland, many of my co-workers seemed mildly surprised to find out I was from Virginia, because I did not sound particularly Southern. I even lost my taste for sweet tea, if you can imagine that! The net result was that slowly over time my roots loosened their grip on the soil from which they sprang. I became untethered from the past in such a way that I cast off the prejudices I despised but forgot to hold on to some of the good things I loved.

As the years unfolded I thought more and more of myself as American, but without regional identity. I was haunted by the notion that I was missing something that I could not put my finger on. I cannot tell you exactly when my search began to find what I lacked. But I can tell you my primary research medium was food. I have always been a trencherman, and learning about myself through cooking and eating foods from my birth region was a natural fit even if I was not fully cognizant of why I wished to do so.

Smithfield ham. Cornbread and grits. Fried chicken and collard greens. Some things I loved to eat and some things I thought I could happily do without now became more important than ever. Mail-order sorghum even made an appearance or two in my house. An old cast-iron skillet of my maternal grandmother’s fell into my hands as an inheritance when she passed away. It took me years to understand the great gift that skillet was, one that I still hope to live up to when I cook.

The point is that each dab of sorghum and butter on a biscuit, each skillet of cornbread, each forkful of collard greens I washed down with my (unsweet) tea began to fill me up in ways beyond the mere existence of calories in the belly. It all filled me up with home. The sense of dislocation I dragged around for years slipped away and the roots began to push themselves back into the dirt of my creation. There was an eagerness to share with others the Southern boy that I was and am. My adventures in cooking also taught me history as a spectrum, and food as a bridge to others.

This eagerness and comfort grew in the years between my divorce, subsequent relocation to the Midwest, and the travesty of the 2016 election year. My sense of well-being took a big hit as I watched the ugliness spewing out of the mouths of our President-elect and his repugnant followers. Who could pay attention to the news cycle and not be shocked and upset by the flood of bigotry bearing down on us as a nation?

Memories started creeping back in. Flashbacks to the times as a teenager when I paraded a Confederate flag around the neighborhood because I thought it was cool. Embarrassment at having participated in Civil War reenactments, on the side of the South of course, because I wanted to be a rebel. Shame welled up when I recalled telling and laughing at ‘spear chucker’ jokes, thoroughly thoughtless and disrespectful of the African-Americans I personally knew and liked at school. Waves of regret when I remembered that little girl at the mall and how I lacked courage to stand up to racist bullies and call them out on their vileness.

I was young, once, and stupid.

So it was when the election results were announced that I felt horrible for Americans in general and Southerners in particular. All this time having gone by, the history under our collective belts, and we have learned not enough to elect such a terrible representative of the American ideal? 

Watching the news about racists and neo-Nazis marching Charlottesville stirred up the muck again. The horrific act of murder we witnessed in that car plowing into a group of marchers who had taken upon themselves the hard work of opposing hatred, bigotry, and evil. A young woman who stood up for many good things killed by a man who took hatred and spite to obscene levels: this is the malignant fruit falling from trees planted long ago. 

Hearing the president generically condemn the violence, with the morally bankrupt stance of "many sides" being at fault, it hit me hard that we could have done so much better. We have to do better, be better . For the sake of all of us, we are going to have to oppose the white nationalist agenda of hatred, discrimination, and violence. 

In the South, whether you live there or carry it in your heart (as I do) and in America in general, we have to learn to talk about Confederate flags without waving them or using them as tools of fear and oppression. We have to stop fetishizing statues of deeply flawed, sometimes evil people. We have to understand we can move into the future without necessarily burying our past, but that future means inviting everyone to the table and being honest in our conversations with our fellow Americans. Claiming  superiority because of skin color and heritage is a desperately weak gambit to demand participation in the ideal of America. It only shines a bitter light on the institutional racism built into our society.

Difficult work is needed to determine who we want to be as Americans moving into the future. The arc of history is pretty clear on that score. We carry the moral imperative to resist hatred and bigotry wherever we encounter it. I learned that lesson long ago, acknowledging my personal shame in these matters and opening my mind and heart to cast out the hate I had thoughtlessly absorbed. After Charlottesville, it is clear that many white Americans have not done the same. We cannot avert our eyes, stifle our voices, shut our ears. We have bridges to build, not burn, if we claim to be Americans.

13 August 2017

Cooking for One

One good thing about teaching yourself to cook is that it is a portable skill. As long as you can get your hands on food, heat, and at least a pot, you can feed yourself anywhere. Keeping the wolf of hunger away from the door is an imperative of survival. We all should cook at least to survive. I do, sometimes. By such means, live long I might. Prosper? I lack confidence in prosperity.

Outside the cottage tonight the sea is calm. Weeks of rough surf, waterspouts, seventh waves that hit as second and even third waves have left the headland in a bedraggled state. Watered gold sunlight is casting deep shadows upon the beach debris. Clear enough and comfortable enough for a post-prandial stroll along the strand, I think. Flotsam and jetsam capture my imagination.

Time enough to amble, that is, if I can swallow what remains on the plate before me. Finishing the meal seems iffy at best. One of my favorite dishes, chorizo and eggs, getting cold on the side table by the window. Ordinarily that plate would have me in the kitchen on the run. I find its scent tiresome this night. The storms that pounded the cottage pounded something out of me. Arms like lead, a belly gone indifferent. Still, the prime directive commands me to eat. Chew. Swallow. Mechanical.

The plate and fork go in the sink. Later, I'll pump some water in, do some cleaning. For now I am content to step outside. The sand damp and cool under my feet. A breeze rests its hands on my stubbly cheeks, redolent of brine, iodine, and the death-odor of small creatures trapped in seaweed. Like pluff mud to a Lowcountry native, it is a scent that brings me somewhere closer to home. A compass to the rudder of my soul.

The beach is pocked with moguls of seaweed, foothills of sand and samphire. Nearing the tide line pebbles and fragmented shells dig into the soles of my feet. The sensation brings to mind that I should hunt for shells, sea glass, items of interest. My daughter and I, we have a hoard of found delights and curios we have collected over the years stretching back to her early days of walking with me along the rivers, creeks, and oceans I adore. A well-preserved scallop shell or dusky gem of glass is a wonder to hold in the palm of one's hand.

At the water's edge cold foam beards my toes. A quietness emanates from the surf. Unsettling, welcoming. How can this be? The storms, of course. Or was it one long storm oscillating its ferocity over what seemed like months? Either seems equally plausible. I kneel to dip my fingertips in the water, raise them to my mouth. The liquid is chill and gritty. It also tastes tired. No vitality in the brine. I imagine a vampire would say the same of my blood. Bad weather begets bad blood, whether in the veins or in the ocean.

I understand the sea in its loss. Fury and sorrow are exhaustion incarnate if they come for a protracted stay.

A lone gull flutters to the sand opposite a clump of seaweed between us. Beady eyes offer up a quizzical stare. The gull blinks. It opens its beak in a silent cry, leaving me to wonder if it had a question for me. Or an answer to a question of my own.

Tell me, friend gull, does the sea grow tired of crashing upon the shore? Turbulent, voracious, yet never sated? Does the sea lose its appetite when left to cook alone?

The synchronization of the waves with my heartbeat lead me to believe this may be true. The sea piled on the sand all the wrack which it could not bring itself to consume, left to decay under the sun. The gull has been watching me as I mumble these things to myself. It lets loose an aural shard of a shriek while launching itself into the purple sky of sundown.

The shriek rings a bell. Realization in a flash. In the rays of dusk it is no longer the belly that cannot bring itself to eat. It is a heart sated with love gone wrong that has no appetite. It is full, it cannot swallow. Not yet. This is a matter for time to decide.

I was unaware my face was buried in my hands. I peeked between the fingers, half expecting to be swept away by a rogue wave. Yet the sea remained sluggishly undulant. It was then I saw the shell before me. Buried hinge end down, the rippled edge of the scallop beckoned me forward. I tugged it gently from the sand.

The scallop shell had survived the storms intact. A smoothness upon the surface indicative of a long tumble in the sand only hinted at the recent turbulence. I traced my fingers over my face and arms wishing I could say the same. The shell I rinsed in the surf, its destination the treasure jar belonging to my daughter as a fine addition to our volumes of history.

We would share the shell when I saw her next. The vision of her delight at its muted otherworldliness would sustain me until then, I thought. Perhaps then my heart would be less full. She and I would not speak of cooking for one. Instead, we will write a story of beauty found in the calm after the storm, casting loneliness aside as it decays in light.

07 August 2017

The Ruins of the Empire Shall Be Dusted with Gold

So it has come to this, staring down the barrel of the gun that is my life. Days on which I cannot be bothered to spend dinner money, such as this one, I eat hunched over a paper plate. Clutched in one hand is a plastic fork. It is gilded. Plastic, of course, but a welcome suspension of disbelief makes it an artifact of the dreams of Spanish kings. 

Golden forks, like the spoons and knives purchased together, were part of a cheeky joke shared with my daughter. We had to eat with something in the last days of my Midwestern empire. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner all amongst the ruins. She is gone back to her mother. I sit alone and swallow bitter stones. The setting sun slats through the patio door casting shadows on a kingdom returned to dust.

According to the Persian poet Rumi, "Love is the bridge between you and everything." A pity. My eyes, my heart, all full of smoke and cinders from the burning. I see no bridges.

Except the two that fell out of a nightstand that made the eastward trek with me. The drawer slid open while tilting the stand into place. Two bridges in the shape of two letters I forgot were in my possession. They crossed a river of memory that should have dried up years ago.

I stare at the letters laying on the table. Zombie letters in a sense. They were never sent, but they did arrive. They lay in  ambush while moving that bedside table. I chew with the mien of a cow. Food as cud in my mouth, tasting of what, I do not know. 

Sunlight slants through an opening in the leaves outside the windows, by trick of circumstance landing as a spotlight on the letters. The heat brings out a faint musty aroma. Breathing it in brings on a flashback to the libraries in which I buried myself as a youth. 

This is the smell of aging paper and daydreams that took me out of myself. The imp of reason residing in my head tells me the odor is simply from having been stored away so long. The imp of my heart feels differently, tersely replying that the scent is of aging memory and burning hearts.

Food sticks in my throat. A hurried gulp of iced tea pushes it down past the lump. The letters were addressed, front and back. The envelopes themselves toothy wrappers that embodied the artist I believed I was when the letters were written. The stamps were leftover from the Christmas season. The cat stares at me while I laugh loudly at the images of "Madonna and Child" in the heat of the summer.

Fading light paints the apartment with soft patches of gold-tinged dusk. The sun is behind the trees now. I can see swatches of its glow through the gaps in the blinds. In the light of the dining room chandelier the letters acquire a hue that reminds me of wedding bands. White gold or some such appellation. They remain unopened.

The letters I moved to my nightstand. A few hours would pass before they called again for my attention. Covers turned back, alarm set, the bedside lamp encircled the letters in a gauzy pool of pale gold light thrown off through a yellowed shade. The lamp was another castaway rejoined with its master in the move. Shaking hands reached out to take up the letters.

Without a knife, I resorted to using a car key to open the envelopes. The tearing was remarkably precise. It should be noted that the envelopes were also numbered, #1 and #2. Apparently, I must have felt that one was insufficient at the time. That or my heart must have been overflowing as the towers fell around me.

The date was April 14, 2010.

Hand to mouth I perched on the bedside and read the outpourings of an emperor who was witnessing the earth open up to swallow his domain whole, under roiling clouds of ashes and dust. The frantic begging of a heart desperate not to lose something which made it whole. It was so long ago, and the shock made it as yesterday.

I read the letters through twice, almost refusing to believe that it was my hand that put ink to page. Evidence has its own agenda and it was not to assuage my fractured heart. History repeats itself, the earth casts up shards of the broken past. In my hands I held their weight.

Those letters were never sent. Desperation is no guarantor of wish fulfillment, and I knew that when I wrote them. Perhaps the head knew better when it tucked those letters in the nightstand, to be forgotten until the wheel turned to the new old futures unfurling before sore, astonished eyes. 

I put the letters back in their respective envelopes and wiped my face. There are no words up to the task of offering comfort to a man deposed his second time as emperor, and who in total three times suffered the demise of his crown. Victim of neither abdication nor death, but dethroned by banishment from the realm. It is an honor of dubious distinction that tears will not expunge.

Before I could regroup to sleep my mind insisted on an attempt at distraction by mindless scrolling through the internet. This as if a good meme or pictures of cats could revitalize my bloodline. Just before I turned out the lights I stumbled across a video of Motörhead, of all bands, performing a cover of David Bowie's "Heroes."

I watched it to the end. Heroes. We could be heroes yet I heard no songs of Roland played for myself. The light I turned off, the gold fading behind eyelids sailing a hot and salty sea. I was an emperor, thrice before, and now not even a hero just for one day. I fell asleep to dream of a crown that surely must be buried somewhere in the gilded ruins of the empires of my heart. Would that my head be heavy with it.