‘There is a light that never goes out’

I lay
in a hot
bath
but the seal
in the
stopper
leaked
and the water
went down
(and I
with it,
too):
and once under-
neath the tub
I looked
up
at a light
the shape
of a ring
coming
through
the drain,
but there was
a tugging
on me,
a weight
pulling me
down:
and the ring
got smaller,
the light
went out,
and I thought
this
must be
the end

of the poem.


Blog post title from the song by The Smiths of the same name.

Berlin, Feb. '16

Berlin, Feb. ’16

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All the walls are fake

IMG_4974Lily got a 4.0 grade point average her first trimester in middle school, Student of the Month award, two certificates, did a pirouette as she announced it, shook her hips, raised one foot over her head in a yoga pose where it looks like you’re bending the leg back like a bow (which I used to be able to do)—but Charlotte only looked on in mild disgust, went back to her dinner: and through all our clapping and acknowledgement we tried to bring her into the fold and recognize her too, but she saw right through it.

I wrote more in my head, which is best done lying on one’s side gripping a pillow, when the outside has gone gray and charmless and there’s nothing left to do but reconcile your sad, pathetic self, that apple core gummed down to its brown, mushy remains, that wasn’t very sweet from the start.

I imagined it’s like figure skating (writing in your head): perfect in form, all that twirling and fanning of the ice, but when you go back to it, all that’s left on the surface is scratches.

Lily’s principal sent an email about something that happened at school that sounded bad, but got polished up with key messages and talking points: Lily explained over second period lunch two boys got in a fight, one punched the other and broke his nose: and when the janitor tried to break it up that same boy punched him and went off running, and another teacher tried to grab him but couldn’t, and only pulled his shirt off, and there was blood everywhere and the boy got suspended for a month: and Dawn and I looked at each other, both of us thinking the same thing, worried what might happen when he comes back.

And though Lily was sick she insisted on going to the sixth grade dance so we dropped her and two friends off, watched them as we pulled away, our world cleft off from theirs: but then an hour later got a call asking if we could pick them back up, they were feeling “awkward,” which I thought funny and ironic: how could they feel otherwise? They’re like creatures from a wildlife program gathering in some ritual on a meadow or beach that none of them understand anything about but instinct draws them back in thousands blinking, fumbling over themselves, only their hormones and friends to guide them.

Charlotte stayed back at my mother-in-law Beth’s to help her finish her protest signs, and now Beth, Dawn and Lily are assembling to get on a charter bus into the city to meet at Judkins Park and march along an unannounced route to the Seattle Center, Lily’s first protest march, which she’s told other kids about at school, and they all say it sounds cool, but they’re worried about violence from what they saw on the news, and Dawn said you can’t live like that, in fear.

My new phone is so fast I can delete emails like popping balloons, they just vaporize, but I’m in the habit of checking it for work messages and acting on them as soon as they come in regardless of the time or day, and at last, in 2017, I’ve embraced mobility and what it means for work: but there are no borders anymore, you have to create your own, all the walls are fake.

 

 

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Just like the landscape

dsc_0173In the way other people’s minds probably do, mine moved along a band of topics in the middle of the night like radio stations or a wheel at the fair, a big arrow that stops and settles.

That’s how it went, a million nights staggering to the toilet and back again noting the time, hoping sleep would take me back, my forgiving lover.

They were like that, the days: an icy trail but a patchwork of matted leaves that keeps you from slipping. A non-alcoholic beer because symbols for me are enough. The Starbucks logo in a window in Stuttgart made to look like a woodcut, waiting to meet a blogger friend and how it looked like a mask, a face on the moon.

On the train back to our village how the rain turned to snow and I wrote about it, and that made it bigger somehow.

And if painters get a feeling from a landscape, and it’s likely (or impossible otherwise) they’re the only ones who will know exactly what it felt like to be there, then it becomes some funny little secret between the two of them, a moment that got elevated.

And others see weird things in the painting you wouldn’t expect, maybe it’s what they needed to see.

And if the painting’s done its job to stop someone and move them for a minute and they see something utterly odd and unimaginable, maybe it’s proven itself real then, just like the landscape.

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Now vaguely familiar

London, near West Kensington, January '16

London, near West Kensington, January ’16

We rode the Tube to the West Kensington stop and got off to visit my old friend there, who lives across the road from her ex. We took the elevator to the top floor and when we got out she was roasting a chicken, asked if I could carve it, handed me a knife. We hadn’t seen each other since 2009, and that was the time she was living in Rome and they’d rented a Tuscan villa for the summer, and Lily almost drowned in the swimming pool, and my friend saved her life. And now that story is part of Lily’s fabric; I overheard her mentioning it the other day (“the time I almost drowned”).

Mid-January in London and it didn’t rain once the whole week, not a drop. It was cold but dry and the sky seemed constipated like it wanted to snow but it couldn’t—instead each morning we got a hard frost. And while our flat was part of a house with other apartment units we never saw the other tenants, only heard the crunch-crunch-crunch of their footsteps across the gravel going to work every morning and coming home after dark, every night.

Dawn and the kids had never seen London so we tried to do about everything, but realized by then they were totally done with castles. Leaving the city on our way to Bath for our last stop in the UK, we stopped at yet another one and they had a kind of meltdown. And all the spiels given by the castle tour guides started to sound the same, and we realized there was a pattern to things involving power, greed, and deceit.

My friend Alex and his son came down from Chester and we met at a museum, and after, walked past the Royal Albert Hall, across the road to a park, drinking in the scale of things: the kids like ants crawling on the statues and monuments, snapping pictures of them, our breath in the cold air, people-watching.

And though I’d been to London twice before I didn’t recognize much; I thought I’d kind of bump into things or places that would trigger memories but didn’t. My stepdad John had a couple friends who lived near Arnos Grove, that was the Tube stop, and I stayed with them longer than I should have, it was August so I went to the Notting Hill festival at the end of the month, met my friend Loren who was there for a music conference as a guest musician, went to a Rough Trade record store where he sold some of his CDs (CDs he’d made, with various bands/projects) and they paid him for in cash, a wad of pounds we took to a pub and spent, sucking down bitters and toasting, oblivious to how good things were at that precise moment.

And back to the south of France to where I was staying, surprised when I had to blow my nose the inside of my tissue turned black, that was from London.

Throughout our time in the UK and Europe last year we amassed a bunch of keepsakes I stowed in a trunk in our bedroom: maps, beer coasters, now a box full of stuff, a mishmash of those nine months, including our Tube passes with our photo ID I think I will always save, as it caught us in a precise moment with a flash, like old driver’s licenses we sometimes save, someone we once were, now vaguely familiar.

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Nothing perfect or terrible

Harry Potter film studio, outside of London.

Harry Potter film studio, outside of London.

We drove down to London from Stratford mid-January, found our place, parked, confirmed the length of our stay with the manager who warned the time would go by fast, which was fine by me: we’d been out of our house since June, on the road since late October, and I was beat. We brought in our things, I walked to the store and we settled in, made believe it was our home for a time.

We went to the theater three times in a week and once, as we were just getting out, Dawn had to call in for a work meeting so we arranged for a cab, and it was a good 45 minute drive with the traffic back to our place, all of us sitting in the car quiet with Dawn on her phone, watching the lights of London, crossing bridges, so vast: no idea where on earth we were.

In the mornings I’d take walks around our neighborhood, but it seemed I was going against the flow of all the others on their way to the train, to work, and I studied them, and wondered what the hell I was doing with my life. I caught myself in an off-leash dog park muttering, laughing loudly, flapping my hands, making myself out to be some character but deeply confused, emptied-out, with no work to identify with.

When we left London there was no dramatic scene backing out of our flat—a few hours later we arrived at the next place, a stone cottage in a small town outside of Bath: the kids descended upon the DVDs, found a BBC production of Pride & Prejudice with multiple discs, and between the three of them (Dawn, Lily and Charlotte), they watched the whole thing, twice.

And I took long baths, walks every morning, cooked every night, wrote every morning, finished the book Catch-22 in about five hours.

Nothing perfect or terrible ever lasts as long as you’d wish or fear it would. Today at work they asked if I’d be interested in another contract that would double my number of hours each week and without hesitating I agreed—and when I got home the rain was back, it dribbled down the spout and cracked like a record and it was only 2:30 but I lay down to rest and listen to it sputter, and an hour later realized I’d dozed off, and couldn’t tell if it was day or night, or where I was for a minute.

 

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A message for a Golem one morning

img_3534Clouds spun out in pillowy strands, like cotton candy. The frozen leaves on the rhododendrons collapsed in on themselves like umbrellas. They had a copy of The Corrections in the lending library on the dead end street so I nabbed it, and when I got to the lake I sat on the book on a rock watching a crow; the sound of its dung slapped the ice, and it flew off.

They’re getting bullish about the ice on the lake and some, gathered on the docks dangling off the edges, testing it with their feet. Three boys using their skateboards like hammers beating it, trying to get it to break, but the ice just stares back cross-armed, not blinking.

Remembering last Friday coming off the trail with Ginger, back to the car collapsing my poles, thinking about my job, they haven’t formed a complete impression of me yet so I could be anyone/anything: I’m like that myth of the clay Golem from way back, a formless clump of matter waiting for someone to give me a command, to breathe new life into me.

When I got ready to look for a job at the end of the summer I started by getting new clothes and shoes, thinking that would refresh my look: but I gravitated to the same style I had in my last job and stopped, and thought I needed something new.

Before, when we lived in Europe and spent last winter in the UK, I’d take whatever I wore that day and just leave it in a pile by the bed, get up the next morning and reassemble it, the same procedure in reverse, starting with the socks.

In that myth of the Golem, they thought you could make a creature out of dust or mud and then by summoning the divine, you could animate the thing by writing a note and putting it in its mouth, or through a slot in the forehead.

I thought about my job and what I’d do to keep it. And I realized I was walking the same way an old friend of mine used to in college, who died young and was troubled, and like me, wanted to write.

We traded books and tapes and spent nights on the golf course by the university dreaming, trying to figure it all out, so close, and so far away.

And I realized at the lake, all the dumb things I used to do just to make my life more interesting, to give me more to write about. I tethered my life to writing and when I didn’t write, I questioned how much I really mattered. I thought the most interesting parts of life were around the edges, and didn’t realize how much more there was in the middle.

My friend Peel walked with his head at a slant, like he was thinking about something, or slept badly on his neck. He looked like someone had stepped on him, like a bug partly broken, that’s how he looked every day.

And as I remembered Peel, getting into my car, thinking how I’d always wanted to bring him back to life in a story, I wondered if I’d breathed some part of him into me, his memory—and if I was that same, formless clump waiting for someone to put a note in my mouth, to bring back life to me, too.

 

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Running across the ice

img_6438When it was still dark I walked to the lake to see if the moon was out and reflecting on the surface now that it was frozen. Even the edges along the shore were frozen, sealed shut. It hadn’t frozen like that since 1991, someone said. It wasn’t making the queer, ice-shifting sounds anymore, it all went quiet. Now that it was frozen you could throw things on it, and I thought about running across. It was such a bad idea but it was all sealed shut and it seemed like you could. It was such a bad idea it had to be considered, it was right there.

And we drove out onto the lake when I was living near Erie, PA for college. That lake froze over so hard you could drive a bus right across it and not have to worry about a thing.

It was me and Dave and his friend Sean, who worked at the local hospital and stole pills and gave them to us in his car like we were lab rats, a few oranges, some purples…he said the names but they were hard to spell and pronounce, mysterious, like Greek names for plants.

When we drove out onto the lake I could only see a part of Sean’s face from the back seat, a swath angled down from the mirror, glowing. I didn’t like his face, I thought it looked evil. He was a ballet dancer once but now looked chunky; he had a nasally voice I didn’t like and a beard I’ll call fey.

Even though it was freezing cold we rolled the windows down and Sean turned off the headlights; we stuck out our heads and screamed, and once our eyes got used to the dark everything turned a soft blue.

Sean stopped the car and killed the engine but it made me and Dave nervous, all the heat and weight of us sitting there but Sean argued, no—and then we heard a sound like a pop, the dry crack of a rope snapping and imagined the car shifted—and Sean fumbled for his keys, he turned on the lights, and we got right out of there.

It was the last time I rode in Sean’s car. That night, we left Dave on the sofa on the front porch of the fraternity house and it was really cold, and we worried he might die. Chris and I thought we should get him inside but there was no furniture, we moved it all out so we could slam dance but then we got tired and no one came to the party and we just sat around nodding, not saying anything.

The woman who lived on the lake looked like she was in her 60s but really fit, wearing make-up and workout clothes. She asked how long I’d been there looking at the moon, asked if I’d seen it when it was dark, showed me a picture of it on her phone. She said her husband grew up on the lake and one time in the ’70s, they drove a VW bug right across it—and I said no way, that sounds crazy, I don’t believe it.

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