Siddhartha, the waiting room, ‘nowness’

Self-portrait, Besigheim

Self-portrait, Besigheim

The waiting room in the colon treatment center the morning after Fat Tuesday could be purgatory, where people wait to have their insides filmed through a probe, to hear how long they have to live, what they have, when they need to come back and do it again.

Mom and I joke because you have to, but there’s no jokes for proctologists they haven’t heard already with lost pens or toothbrushes, the fact it’s so early the radiators haven’t come on yet but I’ll bet they keep their pipes real clean — and I read about Siddhartha and the Brahmins, and think I’m still the same with my mud-caked shoes from the walks last week outside of Bath, the walks I took when I was working — and our friends ask over dinner what are you going to do when you get back to the States for work, don’t you know yet, and shouldn’t you — and I say I’m writing a book, which is like speaking German when you can’t, you have to go on what little you know and say it with conviction, hope it makes sense, tape together words and find meaning.

And while it feels like they’re going in circles as Siddhartha and his friend roam the metaphysical world of their souls, the path is a spiral staircase that leads up, they agree.

And every day I am the same, drawing a spoonful of sand to add or remove from myself, to hide or reveal, an imagined beach you could call escape, heaven, a grave, or just a beach.

Perhaps some of us can’t fully appreciate life until we realize it’s going to end, and others can’t appreciate it because they only wish it would end — can’t live or die, can hardly exist.

The pattern of the window screen, the squares form a mesh to catch the dust and dirt that tries to pass through, traps it for a time inside this room — a leafless tree below, how long since someone noticed it there — and the clouds are that way too, how a child can see so much more in them than we can, their minds are so much simpler, with less to crowd the view.

After wandering for many nights and days in his loincloth fasting, Siddhartha starts to see the world differently at last, as a child, once he accepts his true self, stops trying to deny it, to trap it in a net. He sees the moon and the stars, the dew on the grass, the trees, as if for the first time, though they’ve always been there all around him.

We can’t separate how we see or how we think and feel from what we do, and that’s a blessing or a curse depending on your point of view.

 

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Four months 18 summers ago in France

Beach opposite Les Batteries, Collioure

Beach opposite Les Batteries, Collioure

In the fall of ’97 I announced I would be leaving my job at Starbucks that December, moving home to Pennsylvania for a few months and then on to southern France, to live in a condo on the beach a few towns up from the Spanish border.

We had a party in January at my mom’s house in the country and overnight it snowed; in the morning her epileptic dog went missing through the Invisible Fence and left no prints, I fell face first into a creek looking for the body, broke my glasses, taped them, was growing my first beard and had a job interview the next day as a night attendant at the university library, looked a bit like a serial killer who was all over the news, and after I read the rejection letter someone typed on a real typewriter and mailed to me, and meant it when they said good luck, I typed a poem on the back of it and saved it with a box of photos in my closet.

I got a job as a temp pushing a Rubbermaid cart with stacks of dot matrix printouts for CSRs who sat at their phones all day placing orders from the stacks I handed them which they retyped into their computers — sat and killed time waiting for the mail to come because it needed sorted, sat the rest of the day with an assistant working as her assistant, sketched her once from the back when she wasn’t looking to illustrate the difference in scale between the size of her head and the computer monitor which was much larger, almost menacing, more lifelike, her neck growing a lump from leaning into the screen and sitting all day like that.

I framed the sketch and placed it alongside a plant when I returned from France and got rehired into Starbucks and stayed there for 16 years — put the sketch in a box with my things when I left, buried the box in a corner of a loft in our three-car garage with some photos, trophies, awards.

And I kept a journal that summer in the south of France where I listed each day what we ate and drank and who we saw, and not once did I think about whether or not I needed a visa to stay there or a job — I did construction for a couple Canadians but didn’t have any skills so they just let me knock down walls and in exchange we had long lunches with free food and wine that often turned into dinner — and there were days walking from one village to the next along a path overlooking the Mediterranean the sky was a blue I’d never seen before and the sea had so much salt you could float on it forever — and yet, I knew somehow it wasn’t right, it didn’t seem real, I hadn’t earned it — and so I moved back to Seattle to live with my friends Mike and Kim in their basement a few weeks, found an apartment on Pill Hill close enough I could walk to work, built a loft for my futon high enough my cat who was peeing blood couldn’t reach it, still trying to meet someone, to just settle down.

And I fell asleep facedown that first Christmas with some English friends after a bar called Vito’s, my glasses bent in the morning, and moved out the following spring to a bungalow with a wrap-around porch and an alley cat who had lips like Kevin Spacey, probably a witch, the one who finally took down my cat Pokey, buried now in a parking patch on Latona.

When we got back from the UK last week and started going through the DVDs in mom’s library, we watched one with Philip Seymour Hoffman where he plays a DJ on a pirate radio boat in the North Sea, 1966, and a monologue he has toward the end where he’s saying this may be the best it’s ever going to be, this time in our lives right now — and it’s true then because you don’t realize it’s true, you don’t have to, it’s maybe better you didn’t, and that’s what makes it the best, the not knowing part.

 

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Morning sky drawn in sidewalk chalk

Valley overlooking Tucking Mill Lake, Bath

Valley overlooking Tucking Mill Lake, Bath

Passage from Dover to Dunkirk, via Reims, to southern Germany

Past the old vicarage down the hill in time for the last of the owls, bending at the bottom through a valley to the lake for disabled anglers — No Picnics, No Model Boats, No Dogs In The Lake, No Fouling — an old groundskeeper with his even older dog Susie, what looks like a stethoscope up his sleeve is a slingshot he uses to keep the cormorants from poaching his trout, driven inland from all the over-fishing they come in to spite him now, to leave thumb-wide gashes in his fish and die a slow death by infection, for he maintains the lake for all his sins he laughs, and has a lot of time to think about it alone with his dog and the cormorants who gather in numbers in the trees to watch and wait, and come to stand for something more over time.

And he can’t imagine what he’ll do when she leaves, his dog Susie, but makes a face as if he’s experiencing it for a moment but then shakes it off, shakes my hand twice, says I hope you’ll come back to see us again and tells me where to go when we do — and eastwards to Canterbury, a candle they’ve kept burning since they destroyed Becket’s remains but missed a few small pieces of bone some make a pilgrimage to see, Becket’s bloodstained robes reduced to a thumbnail behind glass — to the white cliffs of Dover where they get chalk from the bones of all the tiny sea creatures and the dead stacked together and turn them into pictures on the driveways in the suburbs by kids, washed away in the rain, a garden hose — and across the channel to France along the splotches of white spray, the curling waves, the cathedral where Joan of Arc crowned King Charles and did all she did because she believed she was meant to — the A6 to Kaiserslautern, to Karlsruhe, returning home to Germany with Bob Dylan playing, a dried sausage, a glass of Sekt, waking to Eberhard in the morning hacking like a witch.

Three countries in a day and a half, no further than upstate New York to Pennsylvania, to New Jersey — the old woman up the street complains our cat bit her cat Chucky, a terrible name for a cat — our cat driving Chucky back, his territory confined to an overhang, stripped away of all his language and his customs, reduced to a blog post, a tweet, a story that will change each time it’s told based on who’s telling it — and the lines on the map move from side to side.

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That one winter in the UK

Changing on the London District Line at Wimbledon

Changing on the London District Line at Wimbledon

By the time we got to Bath there was nothing left to see. I could have skipped London which would have been dumb, hiding instead in some quiet town by a river in the Cotswolds, some place even the English don’t know about. If I had my way, and it’s good I didn’t, I could have skipped Dublin, Belfast, Galway, Edinburgh…and hunkered down all winter in a country cottage on a cliff with a fire and a pot of stew, to wake in the dark and write bad poetry by candlelight, to drink myself silly and somehow not feel it in the morning, to get myself in shape and grow my beard and reconnect with my wife and kids and end the year renewed.

And that is how dreams go, they don’t add up. They feel real at the time but you wake up confused and disgusted with yourself, how you could think such things, what others might think if you told them or used social media outlets to broadcast it.

The dream starts with a map, with a rendering of a land, with sketched beasts in the water and fake fog over the mountains and names of places that bear the promise of intrigue by the sheer fact that you’ve never heard of them before, they’re spelled weird, they must be worth seeing.

And so Dawn and I put Post-its on the map and strung together a route from the bottom of Scotland to the top and back again, across the sea and the whole of Ireland, up through Wales, hither and thither about England and back across the channel into France, 95 days later.

We bought a car, taught our 8-year-old how to use a barf bag, got skimmed in Scotland, tried on sobriety for a month (one size fits all), saw the opening of Star Wars in Galway, our first panto in Dublin, got burned out on castles, burned out on Tesco, burned out on blogging, but not once hit each other, which isn’t true; we did resolve to stop the hitting and stop the cussing, which we’re still working on, I promise.

The coolant level in the car was low according to the digital gauge which I distrust and wanted to ignore because I don’t like computers talking to me, but it was right — and when I filled it with the universal top-up fluid and the gauge said it was low again, with exclamation points, I joked about it, the stupid computer, but realized it was right when I finally lifted the bonnet, spit in the tank and saw my spit wink back at me from the bottom, grounding us outside of Bath for another day while we waited to be seen by the mechanic, the only day this week that looks good for Stonehenge, which will have to wait for the weekend, it’s waited long enough already.

Whereas you’d think the travel bug would grow in me after seeing so much, after traveling to Europe now a good dozen, 15 times in the last 20 years, I’m wanting instead to move somewhere boring and quiet now, a town with a stupid name like Combe Down, where I can forget myself and be forgotten and reread Shakespeare and blog about it under an anonymous pseudonym like Slick Buttons, quit LinkedIn, suffer no consequences, in fact quit the Internet altogether, force my followers and fans to write to me by mail and know at last that no one is going to Like me, no one is going to Follow, because letters are harder than buttons, they take longer, and no one writes letters anymore and if they do, they’re old and you can’t read their handwriting, they’ll likely be dead by the time you write back.

And yes OK it’s true: there are times, most nights in fact, I keep the phone next to me in bed in case there’s a notification and someone Likes me or Follows me because it’s a gentle trill in the dark that feels good like a kitten’s tongue, like someone likes me, the way cats like you until they decide they don’t.

There were times in one of the 24 places we stayed in the last three months we even had the iPad and iPhone in the room at the same time so that one ding became two, a great way to double the impression of your impact on the Internet!

The kids confided that my mom offered to give them money to buy a fish and a tank and whatever else they needed if they can convince us to let her keep the dog and the cat we flew there from Seattle and now, as we enter Act III, The Return of the Jedi, and I’ve published about 200 posts the past year, there is no “top 5 things I’ve learned from blogging,” even though posts with lists do better statistically, there is nowhere to go you haven’t been if you don’t want there to be, and that is the best advice for a future with an English degree, to start a blog, write with earnest but not earnestly, and don’t pay attention to the statistics because they’re probably wrong, just keep going and you’ll know it when you get there. There’s still time to change the road you’re on.

Public footpath, Combe Down

Public footpath, Combe Down

 

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Rebirth of a shirt

When the undershirt’s worn out,
it’s conformed to its owner and
lost all likeness of itself
then may it be put in the can
and forgotten, to know it’s
run its course and can return.

Let me not grow nostalgic
for things like this I’ve worn,
that have seen all I’ve seen —
or put too much into those
things that will come and go,
whose fabric will lose its shape,
collapse, and be discarded
with other bits of trash from
one small can to another,
to a truck, to a hole,
buried somewhere with bits
of itself still there,
though unseen.

Scottish Highlands, near John O'Groats ferry

Scottish Highlands, near John O’Groats ferry

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They packed the gaps with sand and mud

Leaving Germany late October for 90 days in the UK

Leaving Germany late October for 90 days in the UK

Old, half-timbered houses with uneven beams buckling and bent into one another like two drunks steadying themselves. Everything on its side, lead pipe handrails caught in their footings, ivy-choked trees. Pale morning birdsong, footpaths leading down the valley ending in mud. Mom fiddling in her purse in the passenger’s seat trying to conceal what she’s doing with a piece of cardboard, cleaning her teeth, a trick she learned from Eberhard.

Our next and last extended stop in the UK in Bath, but not really Bath, a village outside of Bath, a place called Combe Down, good advice after a week in London. Allowing myself to get rankled by someone blowing a horn at an intersection as I let a pedestrian by and then feeling sorry for myself I can’t find parking in the pedestrian zone and then wanting to kill all the pedestrians, they think they can just walk out in front of you, and when we finally get there they don’t carry non-alcoholic beer and there really is no end to all the reasons you can feel sorry for yourself once you decide to.

The kids watch five hours of Pride and Prejudice, the BBC adaptation, then ask in the morning if they can watch it again.

The ghost of spring blooms on the bushes in the valley the color of moths still holding on makes everything look ashen.

The landlord says the other tenants are permanent unlike us and they have jobs, we won’t even see them. Their footsteps across the gravel every morning around 6 go crunch crunch crunch, the same time the radiators come on. Experimenting with lucid dreaming, blowing stuff out of my pipes, faces falling in the random pattern of leaves.

Lily makes fun of my hat which is made out of fur and possibly real with flappy ears, says I’m embarrassing her, to which I remind her of all the years I had to watch her play soccer or do ballet recitals, and how that must have felt.

Outside the museum is littered with tourists moving in and out of each other posing with extendable sticks and phones and we read about Detachment in the Indian, east-Asian wing, their gods and deities, the idea of nirvana and extinguishing oneself, having permission to die at last and just leave, banking enough good deeds through karma, which they put in italics, and outside our flat in the morning it’s the sound of the same footsteps hurrying across the gravel on their way to the train station, the tenants upstairs we never see, and onstage the actor who plays the crocodile in Peter Pan lopes across the stage with a pocket watch representing something more ominous than a crocodile, time, swallowing us all in uneven pieces, in lengths — and at last I’m alone in the Egyptian wing in a knot of tourists and different languages while Dawn and the kids see all they can see in our remaining 15 minutes, surrounded by mummies in glass cases with captions and some of them names, descriptions of the process and how they preserved the organs, they packed the gaps with sand and mud to keep the air out and so do we with our compression sacks and Ziploc bags, folding down sweaters and tightening the cinches, fitting it all in the back of the car with some space to still see out the mirrors in the rear.

The four of us in an old cottage with stone and exposed beams passing between pages in books, cups of tea, playlists and plastic cities with made up voices and names.

And I play with time too, pretending I can, how important it is to pretend, and how time is all we have until we don’t, and how much of it is really ours to keep.

 

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Salthill Serenade, Galway

Near Skellig Michael, ring of Kerry, Ireland

Near Skellig Michael, ring of Kerry, Ireland

Wet snow tangled in the hair of the grass outside of London, topping the cars like confetti. Going back to a Sunday a month ago in Galway, a neighborhood ten minutes outside of town called Salthill, that day we started coming apart as a family on the beach, in the wind and rain — and I walked out on a causeway to a place called Mutton Island that was off-limits to the public, where they process waste.

A couple casinos, fish and chips takeaways, off-licence shops, a Texaco self-service station that dings when a car pulls up. Beachfront apartments with cheap outdoor furniture covered in plastic, tied down with chord. It’s the cheapest booking we’ve made and we have low expectations. The building manager is in his 50s and has a Don’t Fuck with Me look about him, looks like that’s what he does for a living and nothing else: he’s used to breaking up parties and kicking out drunks, used to cleaning toilets himself to cut back on costs. We fix up in advance, no contract, all cash. He says the weather…is not good. He says it matter-of-fact, delivering news like a doctor when there’s no need to sugar coat things, leans over the railing toward the harbor. Says there’s sharks out there that come in for the dolphins, and they had to start putting them down because there were women diving there last summer and the dolphins came around to nudge them away because it’s the dolphins’ territory where they breed or something, and when they touched the women with their noses it made them bleed and could attract the sharks, so they had to put them down. Careful with the kids, not like you’d go out there in this weather anyway. And despite this, there are still figures on the sand rummaging for shells in the mist and fog, little Irish voices. A woman who’s running looks like she’s got red leg warmers but it’s her skin gone salmon-colored from the cold. There’s something out on the water it looks like you could walk to, but we can’t tell if it’s real or an illusion.

The apartment is stripped clean, a beach party place where we get the sense everything is numbered in its drawers with a checklist to turn things over fast. Two rolls of toilet paper “to get you started,” one coffee filter, some salt, no pepper.

Mid-December, Christmas coming on, Galway. Salthill. Home schooling. Fears about Christmas, what it will be like. Charlotte, holding out hope Santa is real, probing how exactly it will work with him knowing our whereabouts. Lily, on a sidewalk in Amsterdam lets it slip about a classmate, some scrap I’m half-hearing that ends with “(that dumb ass) still believes in Santa Claus.”

We decide we just have to get out of the apartment, do anything, do nothing, but at least get out. On the beach in the wind and rain, Charlotte’s stork bite coming out, stubborn and pissed off, hating us both in different but very specific, well thought out ways.

Lily asks why I’m crying and I say it’s the wind; Dawn hides her face from the kids. But 20 minutes later we’re in the car with the heat going pulling into a parking garage in town, getting seated at a restaurant and hearing about the specials.

And we trudge through the week looking forward to Christmas and thank god mom can come up from Germany so we can have some semblance of home and tradition, and another force to break up our own — and when I drive out to get mom at the airport in Cork and we’re returning late at night, the cars ahead of us are slowing down on the road for some reason and my instinct is to get pissed off and go around them but I realize there’s a figure in the dark, it’s a horse in the middle of the road, and cars are going fast in either direction and mom wants to get out of the car to help the horse and I say no, and keep going, and as we enter the next roundabout we feel it’s a pall that’s come down over us, the feeling of that horse lost in the dark, as if it could symbolize something or serve as an omen, could stand for any number of things that could go missing or lost, could kill you if you’re not careful.

We drive the ring of Kerry, and can see in the distance off the coast large outcroppings of rocky islands, one where they filmed the last scene from Star Wars, and Dawn helps me talk through my story rewrite, and we stop in a place for lunch we speculate the cast from the film may have visited, and drive by the bay of Dingle on our way home.

The girls are unimpressed with stories of how we were about their age when the first film came out. I have the phrase in my head, that things happen gradually over time and then all at once, and the image of an hour glass, how the grains of sand pass through the stem and seem to speed up at the end.

 

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