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.

31 July 2017

Cipher Lock on the Gates of Heaven and Hell

07162003
07222003
08082003
10302004
05??2009
08092009
02112010
03??2010
04??2011
05012012
06242016
07302016
04292017

The wheels crank and turn in the riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, that is my heart. Numbers scroll past the inside of my eyelids, grown weary of holding them open to witness the majesty and tragedy of the last fifteen years of life. Love, death, and heartbreak neatly condensed to digits as if that would provide some anesthesia or euphoria.

They do not. Not entirely in either direction of pleasure or pain. The numbers are signposts. Delineators of anniversaries never to be forgotten, some cherished, some dreaded.

Summer is the season of heat. The cipher transforms it into a hell broken only by the memories of love that somehow have survived amongst the ruins. Those memories, as water cupped in my hands brought to a trembling mouth that gulps to soothe the burning in my heart.

The wheels crank and turn. The code will be scrambled. With luck, the vault will stay shut long enough for healing to take hold. Healing perhaps will make the numbers add up to something.

24 July 2017

Et Tu, Amor? (Sensory Deprivation)

Long ago I read somewhere something like to be writer one has to deal in hard truths, discomfort, and things that make one cringe and squirm. Honesty of feeling is paramount in what goes on the page. Credibility is at stake. I know this. I have written about some things that made me squirm and cringe. I understand this need for honesty. Honesty has been on my mind overly much these days, a byproduct of emotional turmoil and loss. Here is a little hard truth I need to purge. I want love to bleed.

My cup may brim full of cynicism and bile, but love is an asshole. An asshole with inexhaustible resources to keep reminding my heart of that fact. Omnia vincit amor (“Love conquers all,”) wrote Virgil in his Eclogue X. I believed him, once upon a time, but in a very different fashion. That has changed. Love may conquer all as a creator, but this time it conquered me as a destroyer.

In my time of writing I have spilled much ink, digital and physical, in defense of love. How it can sustain you. How it ties one to others and allows growth, security, desire. Now I am seeing I have no faith anymore in my own hype. There is a limit to the numbers of heartbreaks I can take. It is most maddening that we have no way to hold love accountable for its transgressions.

Love lied to me. Not once, not twice, but three goddamn times in my adult life it flattered to deceive, pulled me down a path I believed led to a cure for loneliness and pain, a fountain of belonging. Love betrayed me. It smiled the entire time, every time, with every twist of the knife. So begins the stripping away of the senses that give juice to life.

Betrayal by love disturbs touch. Heat, cold, rough, smooth: all that is tactile carries with it at least a little irritation. Even the absence of sensation creates its own peculiar pain. The hands mourn the loss of a lover's hip, the mouth the lover's lips. There is perhaps nothing so generative of heartache than the void within one's grasp. To reach out in the night and feel nothing but space and sheets is agony realized to a degree bordering on obscenity.

Love as a pillager can ruin a good music library. All those great songs, and so many become unlistenable now. Listening is either a reminder of how good love was or how searing its absence. It is a small percentage of songs left that I can or want to hear without hitting skip. Raw emotion, anger, frustration working itself out in the screaming of lyrics that speak to all of those things festering in a heart exploding along the scars and fault lines. Most importantly, a verbal catharsis to help numb the lonely helplessness if only the sound did not hurt so much.

Do not think the palate escapes the collateral damage of losing love. Oh, no, taste suffers its own degradations. Brightness and sweet fade from the tongue. Savory turns to sour, ashes in the back of the throat. If taste remains it is bitter metallic. To sometimes eat alone by benign circumstance is a fact of existence, easily endured. To eat alone because of banishment from the table of the heart is an exercise in catered despair. Forget about cooking for joy. Stirring the pot with a broken heart is mere pragmatic numbness. The soul may be in limbo, but the belly has its own agenda. When they quarrel, hunger often wins at the cost of inner peace.

With love's loss, the eyes offend us but common sense lobbies hard to not pluck them out. Much business of life still depends on seeing in spite of the searing reminders of what we once had. Who knew that a photograph could pass as a branding iron? What terrible hooks in the heart are pulled at passing glances of social media feeds and photographs! They lie in ambush, these frozen memories of a life once well lived. Turn the page, scroll down left or right, none of it matters. Our eyes collide with the now fractured landmarks of a shared history that was more good than bad.

The heart swears that it recalls the scent of love yet it is the nose that does the work. The gentle aromas of existence, sunlight on a lover's skin combined with rumpled cotton and sweat. Pheromones aloft in the kitchen sensed over the aroma of dinner, teased out with a nuzzle to the neck. Exhalations and inhalations of a nightcap's departure in that time-stopping moment before the consummation of a goodnight kiss. Even the humble nose deals with loss when hearts disassociate.

Someone once told me that love is never the wrong answer. For years, I subscribed to that theology. I was a True Believer. It felt good, it felt right. But I woke up one morning after a few weeks alone again and decided my name was Thomas. The stigmata haven't changed my mind. Maybe because the stigmata are in my palms and I know the source of the pain.

You may think I wish to banish love from my life. No, I want to interrogate it. I want to cuff it to the table in the Box, break it down masterfully like Detective Frank Pembleton did to those perps on Homicide: Life on the Street. I want love to sob into its fist and tell me what horrid excuse it has for killing my heart. Of course, love is not guilty of murder, because I'm still alive. Fraud is another matter, and love is guilty as fuck.

28 June 2017

The Fire Behind

Seeker knelt at the edge of the prairie, retching his guts out with volcanic intensity. Slow poison and spiritual exhaustion had taken their toll. His arms trembling with the violence of the possessed, sheer force of will kept his head from dipping forward into the foulness polluting the ground. Behind him, roiling smoke besmirched the horizon of the sea of grass that once held his heart. Seeker could feel the heat even at the miles he had put between he and it. He spat. Pain radiated from the stone behind his breastbone.

The heaves subsided. Seeker rocked back on his haunches with hands on his hips. Hot, it was under that furnace sun. He sucked in grateful lungfuls as a cooling breeze sprang up. He thought maybe the wind spirits still held affection for him if they deigned to grant such a mercy. There had been precious little of that in the many moons of running from a hole that had opened in the sea.

Ticking in the grass. Cricket choruses bidding him farewell, or perhaps composing a dirge. Seeker did not know. The high keening of a red-tailed hawk broke the symphony of crickets. Crusty eyes opened and he could see the hawk circling a short distance away. Towards the east a sprinkling of trees congealed into a dusty forest crowding the terrain that stretched out before him. Green. The color made his heart twitch, memories of who he once was crowding to the fore of a kaleidoscopic hallucination that tumbled like the ocean he remembered lay far beyond those trees.

Seeker made to go, gathering up a sweat-stained hat, a battered backpack, and a heavy walking stick burnished by months of use, sweat, and tears. The backpack bowed his back under its weight. The hat he settled down over his filthy brow. His trembling hands gripped the stick tightly as he willed motion into legs that ached like the throb of an earthquake.

Sunlight like molten copper beat down on Seeker's neck. He resigned himself to the burn, it was nothing new when he compared it to the tannings of his youth. A few hundred steps onward a raspy mewling caught his ear. "The cat!" he muttered to himself. He stopped to unload the pack. Sitting on top of some rags and an iron pot was a small bobcat. Seeker had found him in the grass by a stream crossed miles ago. The mother was nowhere in sight. Little ribs poking through a matted robe of fur had given him pause. Even through the despair and fatigue, Seeker felt the gravity of the feline.

Small paws grasped at his finger. A raspy little tongue licked at the tips. Seeker scratched the animal behind its ears, then rested it on his left forearm as he stood to go. He spat again to rid his mouth of the bile and spite. He looked back one last time. The horizon writhed and curled, the smoke a giant serpent in his garden of Eden. It was closer than he realized. He turned away from the setting sun and the heat. The sea of grass would hold him no longer. There was walking, nothing more under a gargantuan sky to keep him moving towards the unseen ocean he hoped would buoy his sinking heart.

18 June 2017

Can I Get A Witness?

Father's Day. Sunday, June 18th, 2017. A gray day, alas, but weather has its own agenda. This is a repost from January 9th, 2009. It is also the reason I cajoled myself out of bed this morning.

BLOOD OF MY BLOOD

Two minutes. That is all it took. Two minutes and I went from driving over to get bagels for breakfast, to standing in the hospital crying through a hot mess of tears and letting the wall hold me up. Instead of ham and cheese on sesame, I was staring down at the blood on my hands and thinking, This may be the best day of my life.

Of course, it didn’t start out that way. It happened when I least expected it. That’s always the case, is it not? Ha. I should know that as well as anyone at this point. Sometimes I believe that I am a poster child for chaos theory in action, a swirling edge condition in my own loopy web of strange attractors.

I don’t mind it so much anymore. I have been seasoned by this randomness, like a cast iron skillet with fifty years of hot cornbread under its belt.

This particular burst of quantum activity originated, as so many of them do, with my daughter. Today was our weekly ‘Father and Daughter’ bagel day, so we were driving on our way to the bagel store in a nearby neighborhood shopping center. The land fronting along the road that borders the shopping center had remained undeveloped for a very long time, but late last year a building began to take shape at the corner lot. In a particularly timely bit of irony, the new building going up is a bank. A BANK, in this time of economic meltdown; it is to laugh.

Being an architect, I have been following the building progress with more than casual interest. Being the curious child that she is, Wee Lass has also been following the building progress. Every time we pass it, she comments on it (“Look, Daddy, is that bricks?”) or on the people (“Daddy, are they working on a Saturday?”) or the machines (DADDY! Did you see the big scooper? WOW!”); she also remembers what she saw on previous visits. She has commented many times on how many ‘sticks’ (her word for the metal studs) had been put up, or how many ‘rocks’ or bricks were on site. She even noticed before I did, that the aluminum windows had been installed after the roof was closed in. There has been very little she has missed.

This morning she was her usual chatty self as we drove past the new bank building. There has been a lot of progress recently, so much so that Wee Lass interrupted herself to excitedly exclaim “Daddy, the building is finished, are they going to be inside?” The building isn’t almost finished, as the professional in me noted, but she was excited and it wasn’t worth trying to explain. So I agreed and said that yes, they would be inside soon. She was going on about the bricks and the trucks outside, my attention started to wander. Then she started asking about other buildings.

“Daddy, did they build buildings when you were a little boy?” I laughed. (No dear, just straw huts. Jeez, am I pre-historic? Oh, well)
“Yes, they did.”
“What kind of buildings?”
“Banks, stores, other things.”
“Did they build a hospital for you when you were a little baby, Daddy?” What, where did that come from? I chuckled.
“Yes, there was a hospital when I was a little baby, sweet pea.”
“I was in a hospital when I was a little baby, daddy.” Yes, I heard.

By this time we had pulled into a parking space. Just as I was getting out of the car, she said “I cried when I was born a little baby, daddy.” I remembered that, too; I replied “So did I, sweetie.” She seemed incredulous. Then it happened. As I was getting her out of her car seat, she looked up at me and said “I cried when they took me out of mommy’s tummy, daddy.”

Thermocline. A boundary condition in the body of water in which I am drowning. Warm and thin above, cold and dense below. The temperature drops rapidly, sharply as I break the edge, swirling in turbulence. I am engulfed in cold density. I am in the hospital, wondering what in the hell just happened.

I remember noise, and light. There was a lot of beeping in the background, people in hospital scrubs and masks, voices low and professional talking about “blood pressure” and “She looks good” and “Are you alright?” It took a few seconds for me to comprehend that last question was directed at me. I turned my head slightly to see a nurse next to me, her face smeary through the flood of tears filling my eyes. Glancing over her shoulder, I could see someone lying on the table, body draped in bloodied surgical blankets. I remember then that it was The Spouse. She was kind of still, but no one seemed to be worried. A sigh of relief, she was awake. I told the nurse in a croak that I was okay, I’ll just lean on the wall for a bit. She smiled sweetly, and turned to attend to some other business.

I slumped there, still crying. I turned my head back to the right; the body of Wee Lass lay out before me on a stack of white towels in the warmer. She was trembling and pink, wailing at the top of her freshly opened lungs. There was a little cap on her head, blue and white knit clinging to her tiny skull.

She was beautiful.

On the table next to the warmer was a pile of gauze and some heavy stainless steel surgical scissors. The gauze was slightly stained, little crimson patches shocking against the snowy fabric. The scissors appeared to have been used. It was at that moment that I saw that Wee Lass no longer had the umbilicus attached to her navel. It had been cut. I reached out my hand to her, letting her tiny fingers grope and squeeze the tips of my fingers. I imagined it to be the caresses from the soft, wavy tendrils of a sea anemone. A fresh flood of hotness spilled down my cheeks. Through the watery haze, I could see a dark smear running along the side of my hand. I bent down for a closer look. It was blood, almost dried.

It hit me that it wasn’t my blood, it was hers. It must have happened when I cut the cord earlier. I am stunned, a fleeting spike of revulsion through my gut, to be replaced by a wave of warmth. My daughter’s blood, the very stuff of life, highlighting the wrinkles and lines of my skin. Curious, I raise my hand to my lips, placing them gently on the crimson stain. The blood is not wet, and I kid myself that its warmth is what remains of the heat as it left my daughter. A light blooms in my skull, and I know what I must do. This blood is not the oil of Exodus, but it will suffice. I brush my hand over my brow, blood against the skin anointing me. On the warmer, my daughter wails at the top of her lungs, a tiny hurricane welcoming me into the Church of Life.

Thermocline. Flailing desperately to free myself from the viscous deep, I swim hard into the warm water above. The surface breaks over me in a million silver drops. I find myself blinking hard and Wee Lass is looking up at me again, half out of the car. She says it again:

“Daddy, I cried when they took me out of mommy’s tummy.”
“I remember, sweet pea.”

I cried, too.

12 June 2017

Water-silver, Flow For Me

Blood and muscle seem aggressively prosaic in consideration of matters of the heart. It seems impossible such a lump of flesh could carry, could withstand the currents that flow between one heart to another. Protein seems an inadequate medium for the task of withstanding binding and intertwining the precious elements of souls in concert. Certainly it gives no impression of suitability when those souls get sucked in to the dark that is distance, drift, and dissolution.

Metal, now there is a different story. Ah, what would one gain with a heart of metal? Endurance at the cost of romance? Resilience in the face of soul pain, a refined ability to withstand hammer blows to the psyche? Metal becomes attractive when the grasping at straws in vain hope of keeping the thing together. Even as one watches the rust creep over the surface. Seeing the stress cracks form as the "hellishness of life" grips a flimsy heart in its merciless hands and bends it back and forth. Inevitable, the breaks that form with their sawtooth edges and searing heat.

Metal versus flesh. Perhaps the best course is a combination of the two. The only element that come to mind is mercury. Heavy, liquid, toxic under the wrong conditions even as its fluidity allows it to adapt and flow over the rocks in a river of life. Do you not see the miracle of love as a pool of shimmering silver collected under the sun and moon, flowing from the invisible truth and into the invisible truth? We all have dipped our hands in that pool, once or twice or many times while ignoring the impossibility of controlling what we gather. Our hands our poorly suited to the task.

What of magnetic fields, or cosmic forces of strange action at a distance? This emotion we call love is one way, if somewhat incomplete, of exerting control. Our mercury hearts can only be shaped by its funneling through the channels of love. Plasma fields, magnets, gravity, our hearts subjected to them all. Hope provides fuel, elation the energy, and belief that the forge of love will achieve the successful enjoining of another mercury with ours.

It happens, sometimes. The universe may be insensate to the messiness of the heart's business, but its laws do not forbid the possibility. That crystal clear day where the mind and the body and the soul wake up with that second sine wave pulsing through them. The light from within shows the form of the heart. Picture this form of water-silver in resplendent argentine glory against the absence of light, the fuliginous wilderness of life without shared love. Shimmering beauty held in place by forces we sense but do not truly understand. For what would true understanding bring us in that case?

The universe is full of forces inimical to the propagation of love, this we know. The gravity of emotions, the drifts, the rifts that develops over time as our attention gets diverted by the mundanities and tragedies of existence. Sometimes these forces bend the heart or even torment it to the point where the mind's eye watches it flow into every nook and cranny where pain and loneliness have not taken up residence. For the fortunate the heart of water-silver gradually reorganizes itself. The shape is reattained, equilibrium reached. A benefit of like finding like and remaining close enough that integration is always possible.

Emotional physics often works to the negative, often to our sorrow. Pain, loss, even simple carelessness can in concert create forces too great for anything to withstand.  A heart orbiting the sun of love, a planet of rock and dirt, neither is better able to resist a supernova even if they see it coming from a long way off in space and time.

It happens. The explosion, slow or fast. The superheated plasma of emotion, the gravity of pain and disintegration reach out across the vacuum of non-love to explode the heart. And we watch it happen as the force pushes us out of ourselves. We float and spin helplessly into a black speckled with millions of pieces of what used to give us life. In those moments we no longer trust gravity, or love, to bring them all back together. In the interstellar black of loss we lunge and grasp, frantic to cup our hands around the water-silver talisman of belonging we once knew. We gather it, one small drop at a time.

15 May 2017

The Fracture


Chasm, by Kevin Shea, May 2017

No one tells you that little drama would have a huge part in the fracture of life, in the foot bones of the soul while it slams the brake pedal to the floor in a bid for control. That cliff edge is close and getting closer.

No one tells you that of course this is not your beautiful house, this is not your beautiful wife, because they never belonged to you in the first place. Of course, this is what the imps in your head whisper to you as you try to fall asleep.  No point in asking through sobs "How did I get here?" because you truly don't grasp it all. And sometimes the shittiness of life means you will not be told by those who swing the hammer.

No one tells you that the cleavage plane of mid-life won't be rewarded with that supermodel armcandy in the leather bucket seat. No, you won't get that as comfort, cold or otherwise. What you get is waking up in what feels like a down-at-the-heels luxury hotel, unsure of where you are, and cursing at the asshole cat who can't leave the mini-blinds alone.

You ask yourself, if this is a hotel, why is there a cat here?

Because right now, it isn't a hotel, it is a hiding place. The cat is along for the ride, and you can't help but be thankful for a companion with whom to gaze into the chasm you have to cross.