Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hold Out Hope: An Old Pep Talk

There, there child. Come now. Every day can't be brass bands and beef steaks and roses.

Give me your hand. Let me hold it and trace with my fingers its rivers and roads and rivulets and cul-de-sacs.

Hold out hope, like a gift, an offering. Give it to me, or to others. Don't hold it so close. Just put it where it can be reached.

Tell me what you're going through, what's going on in that head of yours.

Lift up your head and let me see your eyes.

The mysteries don't scare me anymore. Someone once said that all silence is the recognition of a mystery, but I don't believe that anymore and I'm not sure I ever did. I think silence is many things (a sort of reading room or academy of mysteries, maybe), and many of them fine, but I don't think it's a recognition of a mystery. That's much too general. You might recognize a mystery in the loudest room or the most crowded street or in the face of a passing stranger or the furtive smile of someone you love.

When you do recognize a mystery, though --when you really recognize a mystery-- I believe you're compelled to address it, to try to speak its name and describe its features, to give it a face so that you will recognize and remember it until the end of your days. Because it's no small thing, the recognition of a mystery, even though it happens all the time and we may not even be properly aware of it. Still, I believe such recognition calls for some banging of pots and pans, some fireworks, some exultant noise.

Yes is not, of course, an obligation. It is a choice and the embrace of a privilege, and not everyone has even one honest yes in them. Some people are damaged and can manage only the sidestep, the Hollywood kiss, and the awkward embrace. Such people are only too unhappy, however unconsciously, to persist in the tragic human error of mistaking halfhearted attention and respiration and mere movement for some form of sufficient affirmation or commitment, and to mistake this false form of sufficient affirmation and commitment for genuine attention, engagement, and affection.

Joy is unmistakable, and cannot be faked. God knows, though, the world --and people--try to simulate it and manufacture it. More and more this ersatz version is what the world tries to sell us.

There, there child. Come now. Lift up your head and let me see your eyes. You aren't one of these people. You were born with a a capacity for real joy and a yes plumbed snugly behind your ribs. If your yes sometimes feels heavy and silent and still in your chest that is only because it is still looking for a bell tower in the world. Wait. Be patient. You'll one day again find a bright and worthy place to hang your heaviness, and when it starts to sway --and the clapper of your joy begins to swing in rhythm with it-- your bell will at last be heard, even if initially by only one other. And it will be answered, it will be joined.

Have you ever heard a bell ringing in a little valley town? It's a lovely sound, but there is something mournful about it as well. But two bells, or all the bells in the valley ringing together at once? That is something else entirely. That is the music the human heart was designed to make. That is the definition of a joyful noise.

Wait for that.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The World Will Sound Like John Coltrane's "Alabama"

Most of the time I'm guessing.
I have heard the world sound like Charles Mingus.
I have seen buildings burn.
One summer everywhere I went
I saw houses on fire.
I always stop whatever I'm doing
to watch something burn.
This strikes me as a sacred obligation.

For thousands of years --I don't know,
maybe it wasn't thousands of years--
we wanted and worshiped fire
and now we pay people to fight it.
Always an elemental battle,
but fire wins even when it is defeated.
Maybe there is nothing we should think
harder about than a house or building
that has been consumed by fire in the
dead of winter, extinguished with hoses,
and the next day transformed
into a desolate palace of ice.

Difficult to decide, looking upon
such a scene, whether the world
will end in fire or ice, and since they are
equally devastating and beautiful it hardly
seems to matter. I know, though, that
I have looked into both, and seen the
obliteration of time, including mine.

In the spring the building will be
gone and there will be just a dirt
lot and at dusk the world will sound
like John Coltrane's "Alabama"
and the fire will once again
be quietly biding its time.

Nothing in nature waits
so patiently to be born
and then grows up to be
a warrior so quickly
and so unexpectedly.

(The photo above is copyright Chuck Holliday of The Laconia Citizen. I stumbled across it years ago, and have had it on my desktop ever since.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Nice Day For That Sort Of Thing

I couldn't sleep last night, so early this morning I took my dog out for a walk through the early morning streets of my neighborhood. Over near the Pump N Munch we encountered an older fellow who was also taking a stroll.

The man looked both professorial and a bit shabby. He walked like a slow-motion speed skater --big, splayed-leg strides, slightly hunched, his hands clasped behind his back.

"Got to stay loose and keep the juices jangling," he said. "Nice day for that sort of thing."

I remarked that the only previous usage I'd ever heard of the phrase "keep the juices jangling" came from Satchel Paige.

"Of course, of course," the man said, nodding his head emphatically.

I hadn't seen this man around the neighborhood before. He sounded like a man who sat beside God's bed and read Him stories to help Him sleep. I've honestly never heard such a voice, and would use the word "mellifluous" to describe it if that word didn't remind me of an entirely bogus high school  English teacher with a ponytail. Now this, the man said, reaching down to scratch my dog's ears, is a fellow who has clearly done the Lord's work. His magnificent skull and the wonders it contains are purest perfection.

We chatted for quite some time, and every sentence he uttered seemed like a bright ribbon embroidered with words and slowly unfurling from his mouth and drifting away on the wind. I don't, unfortunately, remember much else he said, so dazzled was I by his voice, but every word seemed beautifully shaped and carefully chosen.

I didn't want to leave him. I should have invited him to my home and asked him to speak into a tape recorder, to intone a message of love and thanksgiving to my friends and family, something I could hide away for them to find after I am dead.

I did, though, eventually go on my plodding way. And I thought: wouldn't it be nice to have even a few of that man's lovely sentences in a jar of formaldehyde on my bedstand? Even now I am thinking about that idea, that image of those words floating beside me, undulating slowly like a school of languid, lullabying, glow-in-the-dark fish and keeping me company through the night.

Friday, November 18, 2011

That This Is This

The puzzle of texture, pattern, and repetition. The idiot wonder prompted by even the most prosaic mosaic or randomly occurring stain. Prompts, responses, and resolute silences from the interior continent. Sounds of no clear origin. Desires of no clear etc.

Desires. Desire.

The incomprehensibility of all transmission, whether of blood, belief, truth, or information.

The magic of a phonograph record, compact disc, or photograph.

The process of ruin and deterioration. Erosion, the real deal and the metaphor.

The slow dazzle of contentment.

The planet's tantrums and stoic productions.

The involuntary heresies of the hobbled heart.

The helpless disgrace of despair.

The missing things, the absence of, etc.

The tragedy of memory and forgetting.

The fact that even a telescope can't really find tomorrow, that even a microscope can't make sense of yesterday.

The blood-muddling transformations, defeats, and ecstasies possible in a single moment.

The strange human resistance to the merely practical.

The drab compromises and uneasy pacts.

The irresistible persuasion of percussion.

The takeaway prerogative of fate.

The way that water moves, travels, falls, settles, or sits still.

Some agreed upon sense in the second hand, that we pretend to recognize or understand time.

That we choose to believe this is all real.

That we choose to believe.

That some of us don't recognize that before we can know something we have to believe it.

That we reach out.

That we hold out hope.

That we pull away.

That we fall.

That we get back up.

That we go on.

That by tomorrow any one of us might be gone forever, and in a hundred years the sound of our laughter, the touch of our hands, and the stories we paid for with our lives will be forgotten by every breathing thing still living.

That this is where we are: Here.

That this is who we are: Who?

That this is what we want: What?

That this is what we have: Now.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Drowning Season

This was without question the lousiest job I ever had.

We were dealing with the worst flooding in over a hundred years, on ranch land that was flat as fuck and had just endured one of the snowiest winters on record. We worried about flooding every spring, and did everything we could to minimize the damage.

The problem was that we had two rivers coming together in the county --one of the sons of bitches making a dogleg right where it ran up against the other one-- and all manner of feeder streams and creeks. Every year it seemed like there was no telling how things were going to shake down or where all that water was going to end up, but this time it was clear we were in uncharted territory.

I was 22 years old and didn't know shit about how moving water worked, and the truth was I hadn't been anywhere or seen much of anything yet, but I knew for damn sure I'd never seen anything like this. I'd started working in high school for a rancher, the father of a girl I'd been dating since we were sophomores.

In this particular instance there'd been some sort of serious miscalculation, and the place where they stashed close to 300 cattle turned out to be exactly the wrong place. I never understood quite how it went wrong, or why, but it was a major fuck-up, and we needed to get every one of those cattle to the other side of a swollen, rapidly cresting river in a hurry.

This had all come up in a hurry, and in the early hours of the morning, and because we had so many guys working damage control elsewhere --and it was a huge ranch-- we went out in the dead of night with fewer than a dozen members of the crew. The water had already overrun the banks on the side of the river where the cattle were huddled, so horses were useless, or at least too risky.

We had two guys in motorboats, and another couple guys in a motorized raft, and they were over there battling the rushing water and trying to herd the cattle into the main channel of the river. Six of the more experienced hands were on horseback on the other shore, doing their damnedest to get a rope on anything they could and coax the cattle across and get them moving to drier ground once they'd struggled out of the water.

When the cattle were in the river, though, they were pretty much on their own. And once the guys in the boats had gotten some of them moving into the river, most of the others were pretty quick to follow. It's the way the animals were, the way they naturally reacted, and I don't imagine most of them had ever been harassed by boats.

It was raining like hell, and absolute chaos. I was the young guy, and I still didn't know much about either cows or horses. It turned out I never would. At any rate, they stationed me well up the bank on the safer shore, standing under a tarp with a video camera on a tripod. I was supposed to keep tabs --and a tally-- on the cows that didn't make it, the cows that were swept away or drowned.

I'd never seen a cow drown before, but by my count I saw 37 drown that day, and I'm sure I'll never again see anything like it. The damn things swam with just their heads extending above the rushing water, their eyes wide with obvious terror. They were just following the mass of bodies in front of them. And then one of those heads would go under, usually for just an instant, but that was all it took. I learned pretty quickly to be on the lookout for those instants, because almost immediately after their heads went under they would flip completely upside down in the river --their legs would actually bob above the surface for a moment-- and then they would either sink like a stone or get rolled away on the current.

After awhile that's all I could see; I was no longer even really aware of all the cattle that were thrashing in a panic up the muddy banks not thirty yards from where I stood. I was just locked in on the ones that weren't going to make it. Sometimes I watched them with the naked eye; other times I found myself taking refuge behind the camera's viewfinder.

This was years ago now, and I'm no longer working at the ranch, but it seems like every time it rains hard, and every spring when the rivers start to rise, I wake up from nightmares of drowning cattle, and all I see are those eyes, and then they're gone.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Perhaps I Should Be Reading Other Sorts Of Books

I honestly thought I had broken my heart. Really, it had hit me so hard and the pain had lingered for so long that I was convinced that something was literally injured inside of me. It felt like someone had beaten me with a baseball bat.

After a couple months the pain still hadn't gone away, so I went to see a doctor.

I tried to show him where it hurt --right where my ribs ended above my abdomen on the left side-- and when he probed the spot with his fingers it hurt so acutely that I let out an instinctive yelp.

What happened? he asked.

I read this book, I said.

The doctor raised his eyebrows and waited for some additional explanation.

I shrugged. It was by some South African writer, I said, and it felt like something broke inside me.

Did anything else happen around the time you read this book? he asked. Any falls? Any unusually strenuous activities?

I shook my head. I'm not a man who engages in strenuous activities. I hadn't yet begun to fall. There had just been the book.

Oddly, the doctor asked if I had wept while reading this book. I admitted I had.

Was it a particularly wrenching cry? he asked.

I said that it was not; it was a quiet cry.

When exactly did you first notice the pain? he asked.

The instant I closed the book, I said.

Did you close it forcefully? the doctor asked.

I replied that I could not recall having done so.

The doctor, I could see, plainly thought that I was crazy, but was nonetheless intent on doing his job as diligently as possible. He listened to my breathing with a stethoscope and thumped my back, which elicited more yelps.

May I ask, he said, what this book was about?

I don't really know, I said. I guess it was about a lonely, broken man and dying dogs.

Sounds cheery, the doctor said. Perhaps you should be reading other sorts of books.

He backed away and tucked his stethoscope into the pocket of his white jacket. I'm afraid, he said, that this sounds possibly pyschosomatic, but just to err on the side of caution let's send you down for some x-rays.

Later, after I had returned from the laboratory and was sitting again in the doctor's office, he bustled in, clipped two sheets of film to a light box above his desk, and said, I'm afraid we're missing something from your story. You have two broken ribs, and one of them is a pretty thorough job. A man doesn't break two ribs like this and have no recollection of how he came to do so.

He tapped his pen on his desk and stared at me in silence.

Honest to God, I said, I read a fucking book.