Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Doesn't It Sometimes Make You Wonder?

Once, when I was a younger man trekking with my dog in a remote part of Scotland, I saw it rain bubbles.

At the time I was as clearheaded and healthy as I have ever been in my life, and I remain certain that what I saw and experienced that day was no illusion and no mere anomaly of precipitation, light, or perspective.

No, what I saw, and captured time and again in my hands, were bubbles, multiform and frequently sheened with shimmering rainbows, and moving and behaving exactly as bubbles are known to move and behave. They floated, bobbed, drifted down in a steady, languid shower and then sailed and shimmied on the breeze.

There was no mistaking the bubbles for mere globules or droplets. Nor was there anything of the quality of berm or the fleeting and insubstantial products of carbonation; these were real, unmistakable bubbles, and most of them were at least as large as Christmas tree ornaments. A few of the bubbles I encountered were as large as volleyballs.

A man who wanders for a solid half hour in an utterly benign shower of bubbles will of course seek an explanation for such a phenomenon. My hosts at the time, an elderly couple who were distant relatives, were nothing if not matter-of-fact characters, and they did not seem to find my story entirely credible. They politely admitted that they had neither heard of nor experienced such an admitted curiosity. The other locals were no more credulous regarding my tale, and I was left with a mystery that has only grown more wondrous with age.

I spent three years in Scotland after graduating from college. I was trying to scare up a sociology dissertation that I never did get around to writing or even properly conceiving. When I returned to the U.S. I often found myself regaling friends with the tale of the day it rained bubbles. This was usually over drinks --for a great many years after my return I conducted most of my conversations over drinks-- and I discovered that listeners who were sufficiently lubricated were generally willing to find the story more credible and to offer up all manner of hypothetical explanations for what I experienced. None of these attempts at explanation, however, struck me as satisfactory or sufficient.

Nearly thirty years after I stood there in the middle of that forlorn, windswept place staring up with wonder into a sky filled with swaying bubbles, I placed a call to a local meteorologist of some renown and told him my story. He asked a number of questions that seemed to me irrelevant and then lapsed into a momentary silence.

Finally he said, in an almost apologetic tone of voice, "This was, as you say, quite a long time ago, and I'm guessing that what you're telling me didn't happen exactly as you remember it."

I thanked him for his time and hung up the phone.

Here's the thing, though: it did happen exactly as I remember it. I can still picture my dog leaping in the air and snapping happily at the bubbles. I can still see a particularly perfect specimen resting in my palm and then bursting without a sound.

I walked through nature in a shower of bubbles.

I was young, and in a rare, happy place in my life. And though it pains me still that I was unable to share the experience with another person who could also carry that wonder with them for the remainder of their time in this world, I'm nonetheless grateful for that single corroboration of one of my earliest and most fiercely held beliefs, which is that life is so much more --more magical, but also just plain more-- than most of us ever even try to imagine.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Any Old Business? The Day D. Boon Died

It was December 22, 1985.
A Sunday. I was home for
Christmas and had watched
the Vikings lose to the Philadelphia
Eagles and then I had gone
to the Sterling Twin theater
to watch Rocky IV. I know these
things because everything then
seemed important and so I tried
to keep a journal of that time. In the
funny pages of that morning's paper
Calvin and Hobbes built a snow fort,
and Calvin declared, "Together, a
veritable fist of defiance, we stand
immune to any onslaught!
We are invincible!"

Somewhere else in the world
that day, Paul Wolfowitz celebrated
his 42nd birthday by drinking the blood
of a poor woodcutter's only son.
There was no internet, of course,
no cellphones or iPods. I didn't even
yet own a Walkman. I was bored out
of my mind. I considered myself young
enough, though, that the world might
still be whatever I dreamed it might be.
All the same, the birth of Christ
couldn't happen fast enough that year.

News traveled swiftly, just not as swiftly
as it does now. D. Boon was already dead
by the time I went up to my room to listen to
records that night, but I didn't know that yet.
He was only twenty-seven years old,
and he had been one of the most
alive human beings I had ever seen.

A friend had to walk across town the
next morning to deliver the news.
I remember that I sat on the couch,
stunned and silent, while my friend paced
and ranted. "Do you realize," he said,
"that we could probably go out and knock
on every door in this town and not manage
to turn up a single Minuteman record?
Tell me that's not fucked. Explain to me
how that's not totally fucked."

This was now a long time ago,
and we were still young and fierce
about the things we loved and had
discovered that made us feel almost
comfortable with our difference,
but I nonetheless couldn't tell him.
I couldn't explain to him, and all
these years later I still could not
tell him, still could not explain
how that was not totally fucked.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

This, Too, I Might Be Inclined To Believe

I used to know somebody who insisted that if you stopped whatever you were doing and really concentrated on listening beyond the sounds of the city you could hear the dead clearing their throats.

This was a long, long time ago, drugs were involved, and the person who believed this is now somewhere among the dead.

A number of years ago I was traveling west from Minnesota, headed for the Rocky Mountains. I was in a car with someone beloved to me, and at some point in perhaps eastern Montana we pulled off the road at a place where you could see the land rolling unbroken for what seemed a hundred miles in any direction. We had been traveling along a two-lane highway that saw very little traffic, and I seem to remember that we had gone something like an hour without seeing another vehicle. We had been keeping track.

As we were standing there surrounded by all that space and silence I mentioned to my traveling companion the story about listening intently and hearing the dead clear their throats.

"Out here you can sometimes hear the dead sing," she said. "It helps, of course, if it's a still day, and sunrise and dusk are the best times."

"Is this speculation?" I asked.

She shrugged, and then said, "I might know. I might have heard the dead sing."

We both stood there for a moment, listening.

"What do the dead sing?" I asked.

"Whatever they want," she said. "And whenever they want. They're so far away that you shouldn't necessarily expect to be able to make out what they're singing. There are so many of them, and it's not like you might think. There's not some giant chorus in heaven. No choir robes. There's no reason the dead should have to put up with direction of any kind anymore. I also don't believe the dead are bound to conventional human ideas regarding harmony, and even when a bunch of them are singing at once they most likely aren't singing the same song. I think they just sing all the songs they ever loved. I guess the best way to describe it is that it would be like hearing millions of transistor radios playing all at once, from far away across a big lake at dusk."

"Maybe they clear their throats in preparation for singing," I said. "Maybe that's what my old friend claimed he could hear."

"Maybe," she said.

"What about dogs?" I asked. "Do the dogs among the dead sing?"

"Of course," she said. "They're even easier to hear, if you've spent any time in this world tuned into a dog's heart. They sing nothing but 'Howdy! Howdy! Howdy!' and 'Yup! Yup! Yup!' and all sorts of variations of 'Hooray!'"

We listened some more, and then she nodded emphatically and said, "This is definitely the kind of place where you can hear the dead sing. Sometimes I imagine that they are singing the names of all those they ever loved and had to leave behind, and they're singing purely for the joy of remembering and translating those beloved names into music."

I said that I liked that idea. This woman wasn't by any stretch of the imagination a hippie, and was certainly not given to this sort of talk. That was probably why the experience was so memorable and kind of unnerving for me.

She said I should shut up more often and just listen. "Names are faces and voices, and faces and voices are memories, and all memories are music," she said. "I'm sure that's what the dead must believe, and what they give voice to when they sing. Someone might be singing your name at this very moment, your name and the names of all those you love in this world and have never properly regarded or celebrated as music. What if someone at perfect peace was out there somewhere singing, 'Bradley Dean, Bradley Dean, Bradley Dean'? Wouldn't you love to hear that? Or if they were just singing, 'Baby, baby, baby,' and you recognized their voice and knew they were singing about you? Wouldn't that be worth listening a long time for?"

Yes, I said, or certainly thought. Something like that would definitely be worth listening a long time for.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Archive Of Invisible Ink: From The Crawl Space

I spent much of my early life hunting for fables, and can remember the days when the woods would be full of them in the spring. If you climbed back up into the bluffs behind my little cabin above Canoe Brook and nosed around under the rocks and in the shady areas beneath the big maples, you'd find fables growing wild and burrowed in the roots of the oldest trees.

Some afternoons, just as the sun was settling beyond the rolling hills to the west, I'd hike back home with a burlap bag full of fables. My boots would be caked with mud, my back would be aching, and I'd be exhausted from all the sun and fresh air, but I still couldn't wait to empty that bag on my kitchen floor so I could look over my recent acquisitions.

I once lugged home a bag full of squirming trolls. On other occasions I pulled from my sack a turtle with wings like those of a dragonfly, a collection of breathing mushrooms with dark and inquisitive eyes, and a tiny pirate chest full of mice the color of poppies. Once upon a time I found a stooped and tiny man with flowing white hair and a long beard. Fairies were nesting in his beard. This old man was both the remnant of some fable and an immense repository of fables. He sat on the edge of my kitchen table and told me the story of a giant who once roamed the local woods with the moon in a pack on his back. On windy days the giant would run through a meadow full of wild flowers, flying the tethered moon like a kite.

One day at sunset, the old man related to me in a voice so squeaky and small that I had to kneel to make out his words, a hawk was perched in a tree at the edge of the meadow, admiring the spectacle of the giant's luminous kite sailing into the gloaming. The kite, the hawk thought, would make a lovely addition to the night sky.

And as it sat there admiring this quiet spectacle, the hawk saw an arrow suddenly strike the giant squarely in the chest. The giant toppled backwards, the little man told me, and his feet rose momentarily like a seesaw before disappearing again into the tall grass and flowers. As the giant fell, he lost his grip on his kite's tether and the moon drifted slowly skyward, growing ever smaller as it rose and assumed its now familiar place in the heavens.

The hawk, with its keen and beady eyes, then saw a cat --wearing a red felt cap and in possession of a bow and a quiver of arrows-- make a dash for the dark woods at the edge of the meadow. In the blink of an eye, the little man said, the hawk swooped down from its place in the tree, snatched the cat in its talons, and carried it away to its nest, where the giant-slayer and liberator of the moon was promptly eviscerated.

I always interrogated the fables I brought home with me from the woods, and I also unfailingly released them again before retiring for the evening. Some of the fables I found in those days would leave me dazzled and mulling for many days. They changed me, and changed the way I look at the world and my place in it. They made me want to live to a ripe old age.

As I grew older, though, it became harder and harder for me to get back to my old fable hunting grounds. My life was crowded with work and other responsibilities and obligations. When I did manage to sneak away I found that the fables were increasingly difficult to find, and again and again I returned home empty-handed and disappointed.

I have since read that fables have become almost entirely extinct in America, or have been reduced to little more than grim little lessons and morals without the magic. It is my understanding, however, that patches of fables may still be found in parts of Latin and South America, in obscure corners of Eastern Europe, and in small pockets of Africa and the Middle East.

It is my hope that in the time still left to me I will one day venture to some of these places in search of the lost magic that was the stuff of so much happiness and so many old and wonderful dreams.