31 December 2014

To Feast Upon the Wisdom Fish

I awoke on the last morning of the year to a cloak of tepid December air and the hope that today I might find wisdom. The high breezes of the night before had scampered off, leaving the headland in quiet broken only by effervescent mutterings of the surf. I could hear them curling though the open window next to my bed. A gentle puff of air caressed my face. With it came the saline tang of seawater, undergirded by iodine and fish.

The hearth was barely warm. A fire of modest proportions I had lit the prior evening. Not much required between the unusually warm weather and the two fingers of single malt I had allotted myself for the night. Warmth, indeed.

My pens and notebook lay upon the table where I left them. In the white gold sunlight, silent and patient. Sitting up enabled me to see the scratchings on the pages, redactive testament to the autumnal fallowness of my mind. Sighing, scratching my head, I rolled out of bed before inertia could drag me back down. I closed the notebook as I made my way to the toilet.

I realized I should be hungry. Winter light has a vampiric beauty at times. Days leading to the solstice draining the very iron from the blood in my veins. This last day of the year, my belly is neither hot nor cold. It just is. Melancholy grips me at the memory of hunger, the lost clarity of ravenousness. In such a state of mind, eating had an air of penance about it.

But eat I would. I reminded myself that a full belly is not the sole arbiter of happiness, but goes a long way towards comfort. Three rashers of bacon and the last egg in the larder gave me a breakfast of Cartesian precision. Swallowing the last morsel made certain I would be heading to town soon, a journey of mixed emotions. I needed food, not company.

Not today. Not this morning. Standing on the porch sipping the last of the cold tea and fidgeting with the lighter in my pocket, the waves convinced me a long walk was in order. I struck off southward along the strand.

Under a cerulean sky thready with horse mane clouds I walked for what seemed miles. The sea lay subdued, languid iron-green breakers diffusing themselves along the olive-tinged strand. Odd, this hushed tone on the day. Manannán himself perhaps felt the tendrils of winter, muffling his voice here by the sea.

The quiet filled me with wonder and unease. The sea out here by the headland was normally restless, quite vocal. I think it, like me, awoke at the end of the year holding its breath, husbanding its energy. Was Manannán there? I paused to look out past a line of rocks. There was motion, I thought. Not sea gods but seals. Or selkies.

I drew a deep breath and started on. The sun rose in its slow degrees. A few minutes of arc later and I arrived at the mouth of a stream. It slithered over peat and rock to diffuse itself into tide pools before the sea. The tide was ebbing. The rocks a few yards away beckoned. Festooned with seaweed and samphire, encrusted with salt above the tide line, I often used the rocks as an impromptu seiza, my meditation bench on those days when I fancied myself a Buddhist monk. Climbing up, I sat. Sun inched its way up the bowl of the sky. I absent-mindedly pulled the lighter from my jacket pocket, flicking it open and shut with unconscious rhythm. I dissolved into the sea.

The waves. Unctuous flow of gelid green water. I float on my back underwater looking up at a quavering spot of light that I took to be the sun. Kelp wrapped my limbs in buttery bands. I did not feel I was drowning. I slept under the gaze of fishes and a pair of stern looking eyes watching me from a distance. Their refulgent opalescence lit me with a nimbus of pale green.

Minutes? Hours? When I awoke no idea what had passed, although the sun had moved little, it seemed. Thirst and hunger gnawed my belly. It may have been the ache in my legs what woke me up. I stretched and yawned. Manannán faded from my head. I stood up to return home. Stepping off the rocks, I splashed my way through a shallow pool. The pool breathed.

I stopped, not wanting to tread further. Water heaved and swirled at my feet. The billowing water resolved itself into a large fish which I took to be a salmon if my amateur ichthyological skills were of any value. It was trapped in the pool. I was agape. I considered carrying the hapless fish back to the sea. My belly made its hunger known again.

The last day of the year, and I stared down at the fish, wondering what to do. The wind had picked up. In it, my ears heard what may have been the hiss of sand. But my heart heard the ghost of Fionn Mac Cumhal, urging me to take the salmon, and eat. I gave in to the imperative, wrapping the fish in fronds of kelp. It struggled briefly but clearly was not much longer for the world. I started towards home.

The wisdom Fionn gained from his Salmon of Knowledge may not be mine to have in the coming days of the new year, but I sure hoped it so. It is the last day of this one, and if I would not be wise at least I would not be hungry. So said the sea.

07 December 2014

Magpie Tales 249: Lensing

Photo by Elene Usdin, via Magpie Tales

Wary glance from supernova eyes
shining a ring around the black hole

anchoring the center of a galactic heart

It feels at a distance this lenticular caress,
bent, arcing over the interstellar chasm
separating love from fulfillment

Gravity warps, accelerates, casts out
time and distance, bright recognition
of love laying, waiting for our fall

02 December 2014

Magpie Tales 248: Raveling

Bond of Union, 1956, by M. C. Escher, via Magpie Tales

No one warned us our love would be covalent, 
sometimes corrosive, often explosive
burning bright twining around hearts
built for comfort not for speed
whirling so fast making time run backwards
mirrors held up to each other reflective
refractive actinic addictive as gold
spinning tendrils so fine the pain unnoticed
until the sun burned out and we in the dark
howling with sweet misery of the raveling

29 November 2014

Winter Totem

Tadhg sank to his knees atop the tor. Wind, icy and iron-like, skirled off the sea, summoning a doleful rattle from the bone necklace dangling down the matted furs that served as his coat. A weak cough scratched his throat. A short distance away, down in a glen that opened up into a cove along the beach, he could see a a stone cottage. At one end was hat looked to be a wood door. At the other was a lichen-bedecked chimney, from which a gauzy stream of smoke spiraled away into the air. "Good," muttered the traveler, "it won't be long now, will it, Fiachna?"

Tadhg smiled, wincing as his leathery lips split again. He reached a sun-burned hand up to caress the little skull attached to the end of the necklace. Tadhg reckoned his companion now gone would have liked the cottage and its promise of warmth and food.

The sun above offered the traveler little of the former and none of the latter. His belly not having been troubled by the presence of proper food for several days, he barely had energy to shiver. The sight of the cottage gave him some strength, and he struggled upright to hobble down the faint dirt track that led into the cove. As Tadhg set off, he saw the door open, and into the light stepped an old man wearing a wool cloak. It looked like kelp.

Tadhg limped up to the door. The old man was leaning on a stout driftwood walking stick, watching him, soundlessly and with eyes like those of a skua. The traveler staggered to a halt, swaying a bit. Neither man spoke. The wind offered whispery counsel with faint soughing about the stones of the cottage. After twenty or so heartbeats, the old man spoke.

"I see you've brought your talisman, my son."
"Blessed Father, I have."
"What was his birth name?"
"Fiachna, Father."
"Ah, a proper name for such strong bones. How long ago did the soul depart this shore?"
"Many months, Father. I've barely slept since. My dreams offer no succor, and his eyes haunt me no matter how heavy the dark."
" I can see it writ upon your visage, man. And your belly is meeting your backbone."
"Aye, Father, aye…" Tadhg's voice trailed off into the tail end of a gust. Tears wove tracks in the grime upon his face, staring helplessly at the priest.

The old man said nothing while stroking his beard. A resounding whoomp shook the ground as it traveled up from the beach. Tadhg started a bit, that seventh wave taking him by surprise. The old man moved not at all. He was staring into the emerald distance over Tadhg's shoulder. A clutch of seagulls wheeled overhead with thin metallic cries. The old man looked up at the birds. He sighed and spoke.

"Come inside, lad. There is fire, there is bread and meat. Feed the belly first, then rest your bones by the hearth. The tide turns soon, and we shall bless the bones of Fiachna that you and he shall sleep untroubled." 

The old man turned and entered the cottage. Tadhg started forward, head down, but warm relief beginning to flood his frame. The oak door creaked shut, wind filtering into the cracks in its face with the faint sound of scratching. Down below, the waves roared onto the shingle, spray hissing and purring among the rocks.

17 November 2014

Magpie Tales 246: Onramp

Image courtesy of Tess at Magpie Tales

Her veins aflame, burning
with panic, regret and longing
Not the parasitic draining
of buried addictions vampiric

Road rises, grips a pounding heart
making love to the pedal
She weeps, speed is never enough
to find home in the outer dark

16 November 2014

Head on the Writer's Block (Sunday Meditation #40)

This is no joke, people, this writer's block. Sitting, staring at the screen and the page while hoping something will turn up. The logjam will not break. With winter approaching, the pewter sky outside the window here does little to comfort me. The problem, you see, is that it should offer solace to me. Yet it feels far off.

This should not be. Fall and winter are the spring and summer to my creative intellect. Seasons of vigor and energy, of growth. Some of my best work and best efforts on life have come forth in the cooler months. Stretching all the way back to college when the best grade-point averages of my education were chalked up. Best ideas. Best efforts. Now, today, in this brown study or blue funk, uneasiness rolls in on a tide of unproductivity.

It is no lack of inspiration. Rather, no lack of source material. Current events and personal life offer no shortage of material to discuss, meditate upon, react to or use to generate a thousand and one stories. The problem appears to be one of application. All of those things to be considered cram themselves up against the forefront of my mind, a mob of unruly ideas trapping me in a riot of information. The riot is exhausting.

Something holds me in place. Fear or apathy, either could be a reasonable explanation. I do not know yet, because I am either too scared or too tired to investigate. Quite a paradox, to be frightened of that which I desire, and enervated by the mountain range between me and my creative selves.

30 October 2014

Dinner Instead of Reality

Truth is stranger than fiction, isn't that how the saying goes? These days it seems true. A few minutes absorbing the daily news illuminates it. To write fiction these days, for myself at least, is an increasingly difficult task. Any ideas I have are trumped in an instant by the world beyond my shoulders. Ferguson, Ebola and politics have taken the starch out of the imagination.

This entry, case in point. I don't know what to say. Living with all this noise in my head slugging it out with the noise outside my head, the best that can be said is that it is a draw. The weirdness on both sides cancels out. 

I wanted to tell you about a man searching for meaning and truth at the top of a mountain range. I was going to illuminate why a middle-aged concrete finisher named Harley Mossman sat in the road crying for half an hour before the police showed up. With any luck, I might have been able to pound out a short story or a poem or a silly essay about my cat and his eating habits. But, no.

Somewhere between the car door and the desk chair, all that noise overwhelmed me. Too much fatigue and low-grade anxiety for me to process. So instead I made dinner. All I can say about that is that it was my attempt at making a Spanish style fabada, a bean stew, based only on my memory and the ingredients I happened to have on hand. To my delight, it turned out tasting quite good.

It was not, as I discovered in my post-meal reading, exactly a classic  fabada. It shared some common ingredients, but somewhat different technique. I had the paprika, the beans, blood sausage and ham shanks. Garlic, too. But I added bell peppers, celery and onion. A little thyme and oregano. I guess you could say it was a Kansas City fabada by way of New Orleans.

I suppose you could call it a distant cousin. Same name, some similar looks, but definitely different. You could also call it delicious. A full belly on a cool fall night is a blessing indeed.

08 October 2014

Dead Presidents Make My Teeth Hurt

It was somewhere east of Topeka and west of Kansas City that dead presidents made my jaw clench so hard I thought my teeth might shatter. Billboard big as day showing the latest lottery numbers somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 million. Jesus key-rist, the stab of angst and disappointment that went through my chest nearly made me drive off the road. Nothing like an unavoidable reminder of what you do not have to put a smudge on an otherwise good day. Fuck that. I don't need the hassle.

I was driving back from a work assignment. The sky, it was blue like the heart of the best day ever. I was feeling good, then this billboard shows up in my field of vision. 70 million in the pot, ladies and gentlemen. All I had to do was play.

The problem, as I see it, is that I need to win.

But I probably won't. That is the odds, especially if I don't play. Here's the thing: I don't need or want four vacation homes, a couple of yachts or a private jet. All I want is to make sure I can take care of my parents now the way they took care of me when I was young. All I want is to make sure that I can provide for my daughter, give her some help to send her on her way when she decides what she wants out of her future. All I want is to make sure I close the gap between more and enough.

All that, and some left over to help Syrian refugees, Ebola victims, and those who have no idea if they even get a next meal. What that billboard did was to make me realize that I am not a rich man. Not even close. I do not live in dire poverty, but seeing those numbers up there in broad daylight brought it all home that I am in a constant race between 'just enough' and 'more needed'. Nothing like a stark reminder of the money economy to smack your head, and your ego, up against the wall as if to remind you who is in charge here.

In broad daylight, the hot sting of tears and gritted teeth, and I am painfully aware of how inadequate I feel due to lack of money. The hot wire wrapped around my heart telling me there is so much more I could do, so many people I could help, if only I was was rich. If only I had money.

They say it is the root of all evil, this shared hallucination of what is valuable, of what we supposedly deem important. I say, it is really the root of all anxiety, and worthlessness, because without it we feel like we cannot accomplish anything. One of my favorite writers, John Thorne, once wrote of the paradox of living in the wetlands and marshes of Cajun country, "Survival is almost always possible; prosperity, almost never."* His succinct phrasing sums up the anxiety of living in the land of not-quite-enough.

Never enough. Never smart enough, fast enough, cunning enough. It is a feeling I wish I could shake, because I know better. I do. Still, the ghosts of dead presidents haunt my waking hours.

*From "Bayou Odyssey", a poignant, scintillating essay in John Thorne's excellent 1996 book, Serious Pig.

07 October 2014

Magpie Tales 240: Dawes County Meditation

Photo by Tom Chambers via Tess at Magpie Tales

Wide open here in God's country
That means hearts as well as range
Loneliness not the sole province of cowboys

Rim of her world defined by stone
Scratching its defiance of the sky
She knew the legend of star-crossed love

Romeo and Juliet of a different hue
Whispers of their mad leap from the butte
But all she wanted was to escape

the barbed wire of her heart

29 September 2014

Magpie Tales 239: Meditations Before the Slaughter

Autumn in Madeira by Jacek Yerka, via Tess at Magpie Tales

He belches softly, there in the wood
cider chewy-sweet on the tongue
heavy boots oppress a nation of leaves
with yet a smile to be home

Time overseas burnishes the edges
he thinks, of memories and soil
but the mind heart and belly
never forgot, truly forgot their nest

Winter stirs, bares its teeth in the wind
bringing the chuffing of the hogs
reminding the soldier of the butcher's calling:
In this work, Death begets living, not more dying

22 September 2014

Magpie Tales 238: Made For Walkin'

Image via Tess Kincaid at Magpie Tales

boots brogans mukluks
not 'wellies' her look said
I said which do you wear

quick shy smile
under chestnut tresses 
she didn't answer

from over here
now that the rain stopped
looks to me a mismatched pair

at that she stopped
tucked a strand 
behind the shell of her ear

polar blue eyes
with a touch of crow
that mona lisa shone

I wear what I wear
because it suits me
why do yours match?

21 September 2014

This Child Who is My Mirror

This child who is my mirror
Reflecting starlight and suns
Brighter than mine
Who am I to comprehend her?

Double helix uncoiled, split
Heart beating in two places
Daughter's shadow has more grace
Than my substance, I fear

To make her laugh
Is grace for a lifetime
See her smiling
Is a thousand suns

Warmth and light, radiance,
In her coltish presence
My heart a sunflower
Ringing like a bell

20 September 2014

The Gravity of Gravlax

Gravlax 2, 19 September 2014

My physical location often dictates what in the world I will eat, but it does not always coincide with where in the world I want to eat. The boon companion to my peripatetic imagination is a stomach that likes to wander, and is very catholic in its spheres of interest. The idea of a dish will lodge itself in my head without apparent reason. The belly does not rest until it feeds upon that dish. Such is the case of gravlax. It was showing up in my dreams.

For those unfamiliar with gravlax, it is a cured fish preparation of Scandinavian origin. The traditional (and most common) fish is salmon, and the typical curing mix is salt, sugar and dill. Other typical additions are black pepper and aquavit, a Scandinavian distilled spirit flavored with a variety of herbs and spices. In no uncertain terms, gravlax is not the first food that comes to mind when compared to my ancestry and what I typically eat. 

Although, I suppose that somewhere in my bloodline there might be some Nordic genes laying about, DNA echoes shouted out from the Vikings who raided and traded in Ireland so long ago. Interesting to contemplate, and could explain much about my psyche.

But I digress. It is gravlax what held my imagination, so it is gravlax to discuss. In my penchant for whirlwind obsessions, I decided that this time that I would make my own gravlax at home. It requires little hardware and some kitchen basics. Of course, no fixation would be complete without some research. I happily spent some spare time digging up recipes and comparing what I found with what my belly likes to eat.

The root of the cure is salt, sugar and dill. The next flourish is black pepper, ground, or in my case, cracked. Other embellishments were the aforementioned aquavit, caraway seeds, and even fennel seeds. But one spice that really caught my tongue was juniper berries. They are not your everyday seasoning, no doubt. As my current culinary fortunes run, I had a bag of juniper berries stashed in my spice cabinet, apparently just waiting for such a moment to spring into action.

My desire for gravlax intersected with a spur of the moment grocery run, wherein I picked up a fine-looking coho salmon fillet, skinned, of two pounds. I mixed up some salt and sugar, broke out the dill and cracked black pepper, then smacked a palmful of juniper berries with a rolling pin. That act of mild brutality lightly crushed the juniper without pulverizing it. This in turn would add some nice aromatics and flavors to the salmon. The downside was that the rolling pin smelled a bit like a tumbler full of gin.

So rubbing the fillet with the juniper, adding a heavy layer of dill, then blanketing (and I mean blanketing) the fish with the salt/sugar mix, I realized I had no aquavit. Admittedly, the cure would work just fine without the liquor, but the idea of it being in the mix I found fascinating. A quick trip to the liquor cabinet showed that indeed there was no aquavit, but I did have a small amount of single-malt scotch remaining in one bottle.

DING! Imagine a huge light bulb going off over my head. It took almost no time for my brain and my belly to decide that the smokiness of the whisky would be a great match for salmon. So, out of the bottle and sprinkled on the fish. I cut the fillet in half, turned it into a big salmon sandwich, then wrapped it up tight in plastic wrap. The slab went into a plastic tub. I placed a half-full box of kosher salt on top to properly press it together, then placed the tub in the coldest part of the refrigerator.

Chef note: I should point out that the salmon used was as fresh as I could get, thoroughly rinsed and patted dry before curing. Work surfaces were sanitized and knives were carefully cleaned before and after use. The cure does a great job of killing off the nasty bugs, but cleanliness and freshness and paramount. 

Then I waited. During that time I flipped the salmon over about every twelve hours to ensure even distribution of the cure and the liquid it produces. The liquid is a good sign, and is also why the salmon should be placed in a vessel with a rim. 

Three days and then the grand reveal! The salmon was unwrapped. The liquid was somewhat pungent, but did not have that tell-tale "bad fish" aroma of something gone wrong. The cure had turned into a thick, slightly gritty paste on the fish but was easily washed off under cool water. It looked good, smelled interesting.

I laid it on the cutting board to trim off a piece. I hesitated briefly, then decided I had invested a fair amount of time and money in this project so qualms be damned I was not going to let it go to waste. I hoped sincerely it would taste good.

Hallelujah, boys and girls, it did taste good. Salty to be sure, but also sweetly aromatic from the sugar, pepper, dill and juniper. The single malt was there hovering in the background. Concentrate on too hard and it would disappear, but let it go and it would come back to pad lightly around the warmth of the hearth.

Finishing the third slice I began to wonder if I was out of my gourd for wanting to try something like this at home. All the fears and worries about bacteria and parasites and non-professional kitchens crowded into my head, momentarily throwing me off my feed. I hesitated again, knife in hand, twitching slightly above the fillet.

"In for a penny, in for a pound" cried my buccaneer soul. The knife went down. The fourth slice came off. The belly would not be denied, brothers and sisters, nor would the soul. The gravlax was delicious.

05 September 2014

Comfort Food for Plague Years

The universe has a reputation as a cruel and heartless place. Well deserved by most reasonable measures, measures highlighted by the cascade of disturbing news that washes over our daily lives. There is no escaping it, it seems. Horrifying words, images, and sounds burst forth from the screens of whatever electronic device is the weapon of choice in front of our scratched and bleeding senses.

Plague. War. Civil unrest. Even the perhaps lesser evil of data theft, private lives smeared across the ether in a toxic blur of titillation. Everything becomes pornography now, because the trend is think that having an impulse to consume grants the right to consume whatever it is the appetite wants. All because the access is supposedly granted because the victims deserved it and should not have put it "out there" in public.

The fundamental flaw with that line of consumption is that the victims (that is the correct word) do not choose to become violently ill, get murdered by rockets, or be shot for the sake of public display. No one expects their private stuff to get stolen (and data classifies as 'stuff') when they have taken reasonable precautions to keep the stuff from those who do not have permission to possess it.

No one blames the depositors for a bank heist that cleans out the safe deposit boxes. No one blames a kid who gets shredded by shrapnel because he was in the wrong place. No one with any common decency, that is.

All of this has weighed heavily on my mind in recent weeks. From the shooting of Michael Brown to the Russian tanks in Ukraine to the nasty virus eating up West Africa, the plague of bad news has been inescapable. Partly my fault, I know, because I listen to a lot of news while driving in my car.

But partly, it is due to the sheer volume of nastiness going on in the world. The funk thickened today, gelling around my psyche like smothering epoxy. Escape was necessary. The path was an unlikely one, paved as it was with two cans of tuna fish and a bag of egg noodles. Somewhere out on the road today, I did not see a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac, but my back brain conspired with my belly to convince me I wanted tuna noodle casserole for dinner. It was a stroke of culinary genius.

I had not eaten homemade tuna noodle casserole in decades. The genesis of the idea burbled up in that little kitchen I fancy takes up some space in my brain. In there a slightly frazzled chef hunched over a butcher block table, scribbling ideas in a tattered ledger about what appeasements will be made to the maw that growls under his stained jacket. Today it was the memory of some oddments in the pantry that inspired this jaunt back to food from my youth, food that I had given no consideration except mild scorn and bemusement on the rare occasion when its name would arise in conversation.

Yet today it made perfect sense. I had the tuna and the noodles. A quick trip to the grocery store for milk, celery, peas, and mushrooms took care of the rest. Done with my work for the day, I stood and the kitchen and commenced meditation. Make no mistake, that is what this dish was all about. Cooking, centering, breathing. So simple, so clear, and so far away from the misery outside the walls that I ceased thinking about bad news.

It is important to note that this was mostly from scratch. I had no desire to shortcut the process by getting a box of pre-made "helper", or a tub of something from the local grocery. I wanted to build this thing, tweaking it to meet my needs and wants. Any grace to be gained would have been lost if all I did was rip open the box, pour it in a pan and set it in the oven. There would have been nothing learned. My mind would not have settled. My breathing would not have slowed. I made it the way it asked of me, and it was completely satisfying. This is all I ask of comfort food in the plague years.

23 August 2014

The Little Boy Who Mattered

The little boy was found on a beach, naked, alone and sick. So sick he just sat there and panted. He was surrounded by a group of onlookers, none of whom wanted to take him home. To touch him could mean signing one's own death warrant. No one wanted to risk it.

To live in a poor part of town in the capital of a country, Liberia, that by many measures is also poor, is perhaps difficulty enough to forge a life. To be placed in a "holding" facility because you are sick, that is doubly difficult. To know that the "holding" facility is not really a care facility, it is to get you off the streets because no one knows what to do with you, is an exercise in cruelty.

It was a miracle and a mystery that the little boy, ten years old by local accounts, managed to get out of the facility the night before it was attacked by an agitated mob who forced a number of the victims to flee the facility. The little boy ended up on the beach where he was found last Wednesday, and witnessed by a pair of photographers covering the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. He had no clothes. He was deathly ill. No one wanted to touch him. 

Someone brought the little boy some clothes, but he was so weak he could not get the shirt over his head. The photographers gave some local women pairs of latex gloves, and the women helped the boy get the shirt on. But still, no one knew what to do with him. Understandably, they did not want to risk catching Ebola, assuming that was the affliction upon the boy.

Later, he was somehow moved to a nearby alleyway. He lay upon a sheet of cast-off cardboard, crumpled in a heap. So ill he could not move. People apparently walked by, eyeing the boy, but for a long time no one moved to help. Under the circumstances, maybe they felt all had been done that could be done.

The boy lay dying. One of the photographers, David Gilkey, took the boy's picture, later saying that the situation was an "evil Catch-22". A better phrase perhaps cannot be found to describe what they witnessed there in that alley. People want to help but they don't know what to do. They do not want to risk getting sick themselves.

By some turn of events, a neighbor took the boy to a local hospital where they had some facility to care for a person sick with Ebola. Fortune turned slightly. There was word that the boy was improving, news that was of no small import in a region so hard hit by a modern plague. Maybe the universe was not such a hard case after all.

But we know different. On August 21st the other photographer, John Moore, spoke with the boy's aunt. She herself and her children were checking into a clinic because they suspected they had contracted the Ebola virus. She told the photographer that the little boy had died of Ebola, as had his mother before him. An unsurprising outcome given the circumstances, we tell ourselves and shrug. 

I told myself the same thing. I could not insulate myself from the effects. I heard the news while driving down the highway in air-conditioned comfort, thousands of miles away from a lonely and sick little boy who died because no one could do enough. I tightened my grip on the steering wheel, choking down the lump in my throat. It is not hard to imagine that he perhaps had no one to mourn his passing. I did not curse the universe, because I know better. I know the futility of such endeavors from direct experience of the worst it has to offer. 

Later, I saw the picture of him in the alley. He had on the red shirt someone had brought him. He was sick, so sick, and I hope he did not die alone. His name was Saah Exco, and he was a little boy who mattered.

19 August 2014

Choir in the Saltgrass

The whirring of crickets is a hymn to nostalgia, droning in my ears as counterpoint to the scent of sun-warmed saltgrass buzzing in my nostrils. Warm breezes curled through the windows, bringing with them a gauzy doze. I could sleep here forever, lost, by the sea.

Summer on the headland is ever a surprise, the shock of the familiar after excess time away. Light takes on crystalline edges, burning out details most of the day. Most of the days, that is, when the downy clouds do not pull themselves over the cerulean bed of the sky, the jade sheets of the sea.

I have no reckoning of my daydream time at the windows facing the sea. That time has passed I can ascertain from the lengthening shadow of the lighter propped up on the sill. A small chromed gnomon serving as ad hoc sundial, the sun gleams from its rounded corners.

The lighter is warmed only by the sunlight. I have not touched it in days except to move it about the cottage. The last cigarette was snuffed out near a week gone. Lungs and heart having ganged up on the mind, the push came in the form of the desiccating heat of summer. It was too hot to fill my lungs with the smoke of burning weeds. 

The effort to acquire more tobacco had lately lost its charm, as well. Town was a short drive or a long walk, and I felt no inclination to do either. Such a journey would require the exchange of human currency. The bank of my soul was far too empty to make those transactions on credit. I had no energy for the.

No, far better to save that energy for something vital, like food or perhaps a quart of stout. Beside, there was no rush out here at the edge of the world swaddled in slow time. The larder was full enough. My pens and journals were laid out on the desk under the windows, the ones facing the sea. The cream-colored pages beckoned to me, some already incised with the calligraphy of my thoughts that seeped sporadically from the depths of my mind. Calligraphy, or crow tracks, depending on how one chose to view the words.

Crows. The thought of the wily birds, feet dipped in ink and skittering across the journals, made me smile. Raucous squawks from a pair of gulls down on the shingle broke my reverie. Perhaps they had read my mind and wanted in on the joke. I took the interruption as a sign that I should get back to work.

Work, such as it is. I turned to adjust the casement. The breeze was softer and slower. I heard the crickets whirr again in a melodic bleat that went on longer than usual. In that short span of seconds I found myself in the backyard of my youth. The sun was high, filtering through the lacy skein of leaves over my head. I was on a blanket. A book lay on my chest, my left thumb somehow acting as bookmark. I was perhaps twelve years old, a book worm, with no idea of the world that lay ahead of me. I drifted back into a cottony nap.

Another squawk from the gulls. A resounding boom and hiss as what must have been a seventh wave pummeled the shore. My feet tingled from a deep vibration that worked its way up through the sand below the plank floor of the cottage. I sat up straight, intensely aware of the afternoon slipping away. Fingers curled reflexively as if to strike the lighter.

"There is no past, there is no future, there is only this now," I muttered to the salt air. The gulls struck out over the deepening green of the waves as I picked up a pen. My hand trembled slightly as I bent my head to write. Sunlight sparkled off the lighter, while below in the saltgrass the crickets sang to me of youth and wisdom.

17 August 2014

Magpie Tales 233: Crossing Waters

Yell Sound, Shetland, 2014, by R.A.D. Stainforth via Magpie Tales

Straps dig in the back
Shift the pack while stomach drops
Thrum of engines, bass in the gut
Gulls wheel and cry tears, 
like those of Ma and Da
when home is left behind

31 July 2014


The Elders released him into the multiverse with fanfare and deep blessings. They sent him forth to become a Creator, just as they had in their own millennia. The formation of stars, new whorls of dust marked his entrance. They noted the spontaneous appearance of sentient life in more than one system. Such a miraculous occurrence had not happened in eons. The Elders marveled at this omen, and wished him well on his new existence.

What they did not do is warn him of the sacrifices he would be required to make, if he was to fulfill his destiny among the fabric of Creation. There was no talk of the pieces of himself he would lose in creating stars, molding planets, blooming life. They did not tell him of the pain. All for the best, the Elders agreed, relying in wisdom that was older than anyone knew.

Pain would speak for itself. Among a field of carbon and proto-stars, in a small galaxy born of his first efforts, he knew loss. It blinded him for a thousand years. What he thought would be a double star of unsurpassed beauty turned into a neutron star orbiting a black hole. He was unprepared for the ferocity of their gravity. They screamed in x-rays, gamma radiation howls mauling the fabric of existence. They lasted only a few beats of his cosmic heart before he lashed out to end their misery.

Among a cloud of diamonds the size of moons, he wept. The pain was beyond imagining. If a creature of energy, of dark matter and light, could be said to have nerves, his were stretched across the infinite. Background radiation, the hiss of hydrogen were rasps across the fibers of his being. He took refuge in the heart of a white dwarf, the spinning of which camouflaged the sound of his suffering.

The Elders watched from afar. From a cocoon of hydrogen gas and ionized iron tinged with copper, they nodded what passed for heads, murmuring to themselves but offering no counsel to their suffering son. They could not. They would not. Such advances would undermine everything they sought to teach. The propagation of the multiverse depended on the understanding at a molecular level of the cost of creation.

His heart bled. Star systems coalesced. Planets came forth from the terrible fires of agony. He let himself slide down a gravity well into the heart of a black hole. White hole of rebirth and a new layer of the cosmos lay before him. Fingers the size of galactic whorls reached out to collect dark matter, light matter, all that became clay under his caresses.

Moon and planets and star systems lay in regal opalescence on the blood-soaked canvas of what could only be called his mind. Energy, diaphanous and pure, yet fragile like the collateral creatures that sometimes came to existence on what they called planets. He would not know 'planets' or 'blue' or 'heart' as they. He was energy. He was Universe and Being, spanning eons and the distance between the Big Bang and the nothingness at the edge of creation.

Still, the ache of shattering loss haunted him. After so many millions of years like hours he felt drained. Too many fragments of himself scattered across the layers of the multiverse. He felt he could give no more. Weariness demanded he rest. Sleep frightened him, from his need of of it and the grinding anxiety of wondering if he would ever awake from it. But he gave in. The upper atmosphere of a gas giant served as blanket. A flock of moons, large and small, served as distraction to lull him into a sleep of ten million years.

In sleep, there were dreams. Solar flares become demons become lovers. In his dreams, he was potter, surgeon and blacksmith. He wielded tools measured in light years. Light grew within him, suffused him bore him out on interstellar winds until he knew not his measure. Something stirred in his core. A metallic brightness filled him with increasing heat. He laughed, and stars were born.

The heat grew. Soporific pleasure slowly transformed into a gnawing pain. He grunted, contracting around the ball of light and pain consuming his insides. His consciousness flickered in and out in a rapid coruscation through so many layers of the universe he lost his bearings.

He screamed. Stars expanded, planets burned. Galaxies reversed their spins. He thought he might die, if energy could be said to have the same failing as mortal flesh. The stars went out, then he awoke.

Yellow-white sunlight warmed his face. It streamed through a large window, eight panes of wavy glass in heavy wood sashes. The striped cotton of the armchair in which he lay was cobalt and white, pure white that reminded him of galactic whorls he once knew, upon which he once fed. Through the glass he could see a wooded valley floored with grass the color of emeralds. He knew that once, too, as the heart of stars. He was not alone.

There was a heaviness in his arms. He cast his gaze downward, shocked by what he was holding. It was a child. A girl child, from the looks of her. It sighed and breathed softly in its sleep. He felt his limbs become heavy, as if he were wearing sodden clothing. A smile stole over his face, and his momentary panic transformed into languid peacefulness. The girl opened her eyes. She studied his face, seeming puzzled but unafraid. She smiled back.

He knew then that he would no longer roam the multiverse, fashioning planets, stars and galaxies out of primordial flux. He would know pain, it was true. But he would know love. He was human now, and the stuff of life was in his heart, his arms and in eyes of purest blue.

30 July 2014


God and the aspens alone knew how many winters the derelict building had seen, Tadhg reckoned. Where once were windows, bits of rotted wooden frames clinging to lichen-furred stone. The blank openings held the memory of glass, but no traces of the panes could be seen in the grasses nudging the slumping sides of the building. To his eyes, the ruin looked like it had been poured into place rather than by stacking stone upon stone. 

He wondered for what the building had been designed. Living hut? Chapel? The structure sat mute, giving few clues in its architecture. Small square openings up near the eaves gave Tadhg the feeling it had been used for something other than worship, but surely this must be the shrine for which he had so long been searching. He stood still in the morning light, shallow breath and pounding heart as his eyes searched for anything that would confirm his hopes.

He saw it then. In the lichen covered carvings above the doorway there was the softened outline of a man, arm outstretched, with a bird perched on his palm. At its feet was carved a tangle of sticks that Tadhg thought to be a nest. Tears of joy sprang from his dry eyes. St. Kevin and the blackbird, he was sure of it.

The small front door, or what was left of it, stood beckoning. Its opening was a pointed arch, inky black in shadows beyond. Tiny chunks of wood clung to the stonework. There had been a frame there, once and long ago, but the doors now existed only in piles of pale splinters mounded over the threshold. The jamb stones were mottled by little blooms of rust, florets telling of hinges long corroded away. Tadhg spotted a lump that he guessed used to be a beaten iron rivet. It bore more than a passing resemblance to the small russet-orange mushrooms that flecked the woods surrounding the building. 

The pilgrim carefully stepped over the threshold. Inside, the cool air filled his nostrils with the redolence of musky damp and cool stone. He breathed deep, amazed at the silence and the chill of the air. Translucent obsidian shadows were pierced by argentine shafts of light that coruscated through the windows and holes in the roof. Along the walls were carved stone shelves, dusted with the remains of objects long decayed.

At the rear of the space, Tadhg saw what could have been a stone shelf. An urn sat on it, both carved of the same greenish-black rock. He moved towards the back to get a closer look. The shelf was a thick, long slab of stone corbeled into the wall. It showed signs of wear, the edges worn smooth by the passage of hands and legs. Centered in the wall above the ledge was a small opening in the wall. Light streamed in. A soft breeze carried with it the liquid songs of birds laced with the scent of sun-warmed grass. A patch of azure sky could be glimpsed through the window.

Tadhg hoisted himself up onto the ledge. He found that he could not stand fully upright without scraping his head on the underside of the rough rafters and stone roof tiles. He knelt down, resting his arms on the sill of the window. He leaned forward to get a better view. 

The hut was surrounded by trees forming a glade around the structure. Aspens, birch, maples, perhaps. The sound of birds had grown louder. Tadhg could see their numbers flitting through the leaves, an avian susurrus washing him in song. Straight ahead through a gap in the trees could be spied a far-off mountain. Its sides were furred with green, deep green, so green the pilgrim felt himself begin to swoon.

"Such beauty here",  he whispered. His heart filled with a longing that threaten to burst him wide open. His vision swam with tears. Faintness overtook him, reminding him that he had not eaten properly in days. Now he felt he could not leave, the ache inside transforming into peace. Tadhg thrust his arm out the window to grasp desperately at the mountain as if it were closer. The tears welled into outright sobbing.

The sun felt so warm on his upturned palm. The hollow filled with liquid gold light. Tadhg knelt, trembling and praying. A sudden flurry of motion surprised him but he did not flinch as the light in his palm was replaced by a bird. A blackbird carrying a small bundle of grass in its beak. It eyed the pilgrim calmly, head cocking up and down.

Tadhg froze. The ache in his knees subsided, the weariness in his body drained away. In its place he could feel warmth spreading throughout, as if the earth itself were granting him peace. His legs and back thrummed with the seismic energies of the rock on which he knelt. He felt the blood in his veins as the trees feel their sap. The stuff of rivers flowed in his heart.

The blackbird ruffled its wings. With the skill of a tailor, it began to weave the grasses into a little bowl in Tadhg's palm, which trembled slightly at the end of his tired, sun-brown arm. The blackbird flitted away, returning shortly thereafter with another bundle of grass. The was a tiny leaf caught up in the green strands. These were swiftly knitted into the   grasses already there. The blackbird flew away, returned, flew away, returned.

The clouds rolled by. The sun arced slowly down the sky. The blackbird continued its trips back and forth across the glade. Tadhg watched in silent awe as the nest took shape in his hand. The blackbird completed it in the russet-gold light of the afternoon, settling down into a basket if its own creation. 

A trance deepened upon the pilgrim. He knew then that he would not move until the eggs were laid, the birds grown and flying on their own journeys beneath the sun. He would not move until the task was complete. Until he was complete. 

Night fell. Crystalline stars wheeled across the sky as the blackbird murmured to Tadhg of its dreams of Creation and fulfillment. The pilgrim, waiting patiently, felt the stirrings of love in his stony heart.

17 July 2014

A Game of Pooh Sticks on the Bridge of Sorrows

"Daddy, will the Sun ever burn out?"

Her voice quavering, my daughter questioned the very life of stars. The Sun is not the certainty to her that it is to me. It was there by creek side, under a luminous smear of galactic dust, she spoke to me of Death. 

I inhaled crisp air lashed with the tang of woodsmoke from the fire at our feet. A little creek, crossed by a tiny footbridge, bisected the yard in front of our cabin. It burbled and whispered as I craned my head back to contemplate the stars overhead in the clear South Dakota sky. Her questions were unexpected. The truth seized hold of my tongue before I could shush it.

"Yes, it will, sweet pea."

Her eyes as those of a wounded doe, she asked "When?"

"A long time from now, so far away we won't know about it when it does," I said.
She paused. Her face a sphinx before the flicker of the flames. 

"Could it happen tomorrow?"
"No, dear."
"But when will it happen?"
"Billions of years from now."

That stopped her cold. I swallowed the tightness in my throat, a metallic tinge of regret burning my gullet. The truth as I knew it was maybe not the best of revelations for a thoughtful kid who wants to see around corners. Just like her Da. I could tell. It was there in the shining eyes beyond the firelight. We held our breath, teetering on the fulcrum of a hard question, she wanting to know the truth and me wrestling with shielding her from it.

The dam broke. Questions spilled from her lips. Tell me about stars, she said. How long does it take for them to burn out? What happens if I get sick and die? she asked. What happens if you get sick? Is that what happened to my brother and sister? I don't want that to happen to us, she said. Will it? Will it, Daddy?

My mind reeled. The sediment of memory was stirred up, and thick. I did my best to describe and explain, without going to deep into details. Assurances were made, platitudes delivered, at best it was a redacted version of wisdom and history. There was no hiding from the direct questions. She is too smart for me to pull the wool over her emotional eyes for too long, so there was no trying.

The sutures on my heart throbbed and ached when tears welled up in her eyes. How to explain these things without breaking someone's heart? Compassion and regret were duking it out in my head.

But she asked. I wanted her to know. We drifted off into a conversation about the stars, again, their colors and what they mean. She impressed me with what she already seems to know about those things. I asked her if she knew of an easy way to remember the colors and the sequence. She did not. From some memory vault last accessed long ago, I dredged up the mnemonic I had learned as a kid.

"O-B-A-F-G-K-M, sweet pea. 'Oh be a fine girl kiss me." I laughed. She blushed, I think, hiding her grin behind her hand. 
"That's funny, daddy."
"I know, but you remember it, right?"

She asked me for the third time if I was certain the Sun wasn't going to burn out when we would know about it. I responded again that I was certain.

"Are you sure?" she asked, her arching upward in that 'I-do-not-quite-believe-you-yet' sort of way.
"Yes, I'm sure."

We lapsed into silence. A slight breeze stirred the trees. For some ticks of the clock, I watched the stars wheeling over the ridge line to the north. It was beautiful in the night. My eyelids drifted downward, the murmurs of the creek and the dying of the light exerting the gravity of sleepiness. She surprised me with another question.

"Daddy, do you remember the bridge? The one back in Maryland close to the apartment?"
I snapped my eyes open. "Yes, I do."
"I liked the bridge. Remember when we used to play pooh-sticks from it?"

The tightness in my throat returned. Boy, did I ever remember. "Yes," I squeezed out.

"That was a fun game. I liked watching the sticks in the water. We could play it here!" she said while pointing to the footbridge. The shine in her eyes was pure joy. Much better than the existential sadness I had glimpsed earlier. I chuckled.

"I reckon we could, sweet pea, but it is a bit dark for it."
"I know," she sighed, "but we could when it is light." 

With that, she announced that she wanted to go inside the cabin, because she was tired and it was getting cool. She fetched water and I doused the embers of the fire. Watching them fade away, I felt untethered from the earth, but comfortable with floating. My daughter hugged me, briefly, in that skittish animal way that kids have sometimes. The realness of the affection convinced me that sometimes, the best way to handle the infinite is to play games on the bridge of sorrows.

16 July 2014

Every Day I Am Schrödinger's Cat

Red eyes flickering
Fever state of life or death,
Which will I awake? 

27 June 2014

The Summer of My Discontent, and Blisters

Field notes, June 5th, 2014. Somewhere over the Mid-Atlantic, waiting on a drink.

The smell of hot asphalt in the summer and memories of a kid back there in the haze. I am unsure how to feel about it. Mixed emotions and hydrocarbons are uneasy partners. 

Tarmac bringing me back to the flush of adolescence. Summertime trip, foolishness of youth to think I could run across a quarter-mile of blacktop, barefoot, on pavement that might as well have been a cast-iron griddle hot over the coals. 

I did it. Because I was stupid in the vein of teenage boys, I did it. By the time I returned to the car I had blisters the size of walnuts on the soles of my feet. First day of summer vacation and I was hobbling like a drunk chicken. So much for impressing the bikini girls down by the pier. 

It means more to me now than it did that melted cotton candy summer. On the border between goofy little boy and awkward proto-man, I lacked enough confidence and self-awareness to be saddened by the realization that I was not going to get laid. 

I was fascinated, and still am, by maps. Girls were foreign countries in an atlas on the bookshelf, at that point in my life. Maps to be studied, pored over, committed to memory but never visited. The cartography of my puberty consisting of names, codes, symbols on paper. 

The female of the species. A puzzling, fascinating and undiscovered country. I knew them well, yet knew them not at all.

31 May 2014

Jaguar Heart

Godl sits in the forest, quiet, dappled with gold light seeping between the leaves. Half-hearted rumbles vibrate the bones of his deep chest. The jaguar would weep if he could. A jaguar on the verge of weeping signals the end of the world.  Do humans know this?

The jaguar does not. Hot breath swirls over bared fangs as it wonders why it cannot howl out the loneliness in the core of its heart. 

30 May 2014

This is the Hard Part

There is nothing like being a parent to make you feel like you might amount to something in this life. And nothing like the same condition to make you wonder if you will ever live up to the promise shining in the eyes of your child. 

This is the hard part. Overcoming the limitations of yourself. Overpowering the weaknesses in your character. Learning that love is more important than ego. 

Trying not to be swallowed up by the black hole of worthlessness that lurks in the bottom of an insecure soul. 

This is the hard part. Staring in shock at that human bent on the mirror and realizing how great the task that lies before it, that of being a better person. 

Better, for the sake of love: the imperative of life. 

14 May 2014

Book Soul, Book Heart

Field notes, 08 May 2014. Alone, expectant, waiting. For what?

Where resides the heart and soul of a book? Not the story inside it, perhaps, but the thing in itself. I cannot imagine the devoted reader that I am, cozying up to an ebook or tablet. 

There is no life in the machine. 

Digital pages do not rasp under the fingers, nor does the light reflect from them with any warmth. Silicon, glass and aluminum react to the fingertips and the blood running through them. But that blood does not carry logos on its way back to the heart. Ultimately, electronic readers seem not tactile enough to satisfy me.

Wind outside. There is no music or television chatter, so the rustling of leaves I hear through the walls. My mind loses its place. The book is replaced by the voice of Marcus Aurelius, speaking softly in the temple of my head.
"Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one."
The book I set on the nightstand before it slips from my fingers. The wind stirs the trees again, sounding for all the world like a dead emperor whispering from the yard. I roll over, turn out the light, hoping to dream of that good man to be.

22 April 2014

That Awkward Moment of Collapse

….when you realize that you are not living up to your promise and potential. Those terrible moments waking from a dream at godawful o'clock in the morning. A dream of collapse and loss, panting in panic muddled with fear. The seizure when you feel in your heart that you are so far from what you said you wanted to be that you will never catch up.

Pardon me. A moment, please. (Sighing)

I keep writing "you" as if I am describing the arc of your lives, you the reader. I should stop that now. What I should have written was "I". That awkward moment when I realized those awful things about my life. Not you. I cannot speak of these things in your life because I do not know the arcs of your lives in such particulars.

Waking up from such unsettling dreams as often as I have in recent weeks, it is my hope that no one of whom I know is experiencing the same. It makes for poor sleep, which in turn makes for sluggish days on which it takes far too much effort and time to get back to being in the moment.

These dreams have a recurring theme, that of losing all of my means of support. Cold sweat awakens me, wondering where my jobs went, how could I possibly lose them and the money that goes with them. I twitch awake, breathing hard. It is unpleasant, to say the least. I know these dreams have their roots in the unfortunate round of layoffs I endured starting in 2008, and the subsequent scrambling to find gainful employment. The question I cannot answer is, Why now?

What add a particular new shade of funk is that this unleashing of the succubi in my subconscious has manifested in the form of shame. Shamed by a sense of personal failure as a writer. In the cold grey sump of sunless mornings, imps have been whispering in my ears: "You will never be a professional. You squander any gift you might have possessed, you have not achieved meaningfulness as a way of life."

This is so disturbing that words are not sufficient to illuminate the heaviness in my heart. It is damning to hear those awful voices, to look back on what I have done, and think that perhaps the imps are right. Catchy titles, very short stories that exist in a near vacuum, the occasional flash of brilliance: these are things in which I perhaps have some facility.

Perhaps. Yet a solid body of work they are not. I have had a million ideas go nowhere. I have failed to produce anything I would be happy to call a book. A collection of short stories, maybe, if one cares to be generous of spirit. Yet disjointed fever dreams and notes scrawled on virtual Post-its do not an oeuvre make. Because of this, the small hours of the morning become tainted with anxiety swirled with disappointment bordering on self-loathing.

My mind overflows. My hand is stilled by a lack of ambition or surfeit of sloth, I am not sure which. The disappointment I feel fuels the crematorium of my dreams. I do not write this to depress or disturb any who may read it, forgive me if this has happened. This scrawling of mine is not a plea for pity, I wouldn't be so pathetic.

I write because of the dreams. I recently read truth from a favorite author of mine, who said "...honesty means nothing if there's no real risk to it, no self-examination". The dreams are forcing me to self-examine. I write this out of honesty, and I am enervated by what I have not done.