Friday, December 30, 2011

A Catalog of Simple Wishes For The New Year

To enter each day expectant, and bow down to my dog with gratitude.

To leap and blow bubbles and reach instinctively for every bright, raging color in the crayon box.

To creep like an ecstatic cat burglar through every day and fling myself at the world.

To want more.

To whoop and bellow and grip the grass with my toes.

To look forward, and lunge.

To stomp through the calendar, oblivious, and to kill no clock that I don’t intend to eat with genuine relish.

To sense the planet moving beneath my feet, and to understand  that that motion represents both a state of urgency and an obligation.

To laugh until I cry uncle.

To want more.

To emerge from every dark place upright, unharmed, and blinking in the sunlight.

To imagine entire new constellations of planets, vast galaxies teeming with possibility.

To create a world of my own that allows me to live comfortably in the world I did not create.

To surround myself with the things I have saved from a lifetime of excavation and exploration, every one of which is a personal version of Proust’s madeleine.

To keep playing Twister with words until I find the right way to say the things I want and need to say.

To have pure, idiot wonder and faith in the limitless miracles of my body.

To want more.

To trust fully the things on which I can depend.

To be more dependable to the people on whom I depend.

To harbor none but exaggerated fears and the smallest of dissolving terrors.

To be hungry for nothing but something to eat.

To be forever trusting in the arms of mercy.

To get up when I fall.

To stand and run and never crawl again.

To recognize that I have been blessed beyond measure, and to accept my blessings as the expected, everyday miracles that they are.

To give thanks, nonetheless.

To want more.

To keep my heart open.

To listen.

To talk to strangers.

To stop what I’m doing –wherever I am—and take a good look around.

To reach out, to raise my voice.

To change my mind.

To know that I’ve done what I could.

To know that I want to do still more.

To settle down at the end of the day with good music and my inventory of pleasures and memories.

To give myself away until I’m empty and exhausted and left with nothing but the last radiant embers of satisfaction and contentment.

To believe that if this is it, it was not just enough, but more than enough.

To sleep and --not merely perchance-- to dream.

To have sweet dreams.

To want more.

To get up and try it all again.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Watching The Dailies From A Railroad Trestle In Vermont

A creeping reel of film
stretched across the valley
between the shrouded hills,
a pastoral interlude before things
get lively and it heads through
town, the river both the film itself
and the screen on which it is projected.

Watching at dusk from the theater
of the trestle, the town huddled
on the banks shimmers across the screen.
The streetlamps, the slashing lights of
cars on the river road, the lights
in the windows of the hulking old
buildings, the steam from the paper mill.

Or at high noon, color and light
and evident shapes and motion,
floating clouds and a bright,
shattered sun transmuted time and
again in a quaking hall of mirrors.
Yet another dream shot for the ancient
cinematographer, the supreme panoramist.

He likes to keep his show rolling,
and loaded with literal sub-texts,
hidden backstories and tragic plot lines
stashed in the memory of moving water
and the murk beneath the surface.
A shame you can’t rewind the film
a hundred or even five hundred years.

If you wanted to, though, you could follow
its languid story all the way to its closing credits,
to the moon-tossed archives of the sea,
repository of a million dreams etched on
living water. This day will be there
soon, dissolving into fragments and,
finally, particles of pure and living light.

Sometimes, far out at sea, the ocean
will still screen jumbled festivals of the
old films it has acquired, and sailors
will be struck mute with wonder, forever
changed by they things they have seen.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Gift That Sets The Stars Free

One night long ago in a once-upon-a-time world there was a little lost dog in a faraway forest. The dog was alone and hungry, and it was a bitter winter. The dog was settling into the den he had burrowed for himself in the snow around the roots of a tree, and as he curled up in the darkness he heard the distant shimmer of bells and, a moment later, voices carrying in the cold night air, a great many voices joined in some happy song. The dog had never known anyone to pass through the faraway forest, not once in his lost time in that lonely place had he heard voices like these, or the beautiful and wondrous stamping of bells.

The little dog crept to the edge of his den and sniffed, peering, in the direction of the music. A moment later, light from the many torches of the travelers swept creeping shadows into the clearing outside the den, then chased completely the darkness before them and  became full, hissing light. The dog watched in wonder as the brightly clad travelers –laughing and singing—paraded into view, enveloped in a moving cloud of steam and smoke.

There were tiny acrobats and a tall, thin fellow toddling on stilts and several laughing jugglers. There were five shy horses pulling bright clattering wagons, and interspersed amongst the parade were dozens of chattering clowns. At the very end of this colorful parade, lagging almost outside the very last of the torchlight, there was a small, limping clown, leading an old and slow donkey. As the dog crept from his hiding place, the happy songs and jangling bells of the travelers were already fading away into the distance and the darkness of the faraway forest. 

The dog trotted along after the parade and soon found himself beside the limping clown and the old donkey. When finally the sad-faced clown became aware of the dog’s presence, a look of surprise and happiness came over his face and he let out a cry that startled the little dog. The clown crouched in the snow alongside the donkey and clapped his hands and called out, and when the dog came into the clown’s arms the little clown began to laugh and the small, laughing clown held the dog in his arms, rocking him gently and murmuring. 

The clown –murmuring and giggling happily all the while—carried the dog in his arms as they brought up the rear of the noisy and colorful and clanking parade. 

They traveled that night until the torches had all burned down to darkness, and then they stopped and set up their camp along a frozen river. It had grown cold, and the travelers bundled together under their blankets beside roaring fires, with the horses and the donkey huddled stamping and steaming just outside the circle of jugglers, acrobats, and clowns. 

The clown had swaddled the lost dog in an old wool blanket, and he held the dog in his arms and rocked him as the others told stories and laughed and gradually drifted into silence and sleep. 

The clown’s name was Munch, or so he was known to his fellow travelers, and now he whispered to the dog in his arms, “I shall call you Beauteous Munch.” Together they sat up until the bonfire had faded to embers, and together they saw a sky above them where there were millions upon millions of bright stars. The clown sang quiet songs and interrupted himself at one point to say, “Look, Beauteous Munch, there goes a shooting star!  Sweet dreams, my little wish.”

And that night, as he lay curled up beneath the blankets with the little clown, Beauteous Munch was warm and slept without shivering for the first time since the long ago day when he had first found himself lost in the faraway forest.

There had been a time when Beauteous Munch was a puppy living contentedly with his mother and his brothers and sisters in a wooden box in a small town. One day a man and woman had come to take him away to live with them in their house. They were loud and unhappy people, and try as he might Beauteous Munch could not make them any less unhappy. The old man was impatient with Beauteous Munch and shouted at him often.

All day Beauteous Munch would sit at the window staring out at the children playing in the street and passing by his house. Then one day when the nights were beginning to get cold, the man put Beauteous Munch outside. It was raining very hard, and cry as he might and scratch at the door as he did, Beauteous Munch could not get the old man or woman to open the door for him so he could come in out of the rain. Beauteous Munch sat on the steps of the house for a long time that night, until he saw the lamp in the front room extinguished and it was dark up and down the street and the rain was beginning to turn to snow. That was the night Beauteous Munch wandered away and eventually found himself lost in the faraway forest.

That first night away from his home Beauteous Munch tried to sleep, but he was wet and cold and lonely. He missed his long ago once-upon-a-time life. He peered up through the big, wet snowflakes that were cart-wheeling out of the sky and he found a star there barely twinkling, a little star that looked lost and distant and alone. And as Beauteous Munch closed his eyes he wished upon that lost and distant star, wished that somewhere there was another wish lost and longing for a dog, and that attached to that wish was someone special with quiet magic in his hands and a soft voice and a smile that could wag a dog’s tail.

That same night, far away from the faraway forest, Munch the clown was bundled up in a blanket next to his donkey, listening to the laughter and the songs of his traveling companions. He was stout and not as graceful as the others, nor as skilled. Even as a clown his only real role was to lead the donkey and the horses around the ring, and to assist some of the performers with their stunts. He could not sing, and because he spoke with a slight stutter he was the quietest of the troupe, and tended to settle by himself into the background, talking quietly with the donkey and the horses. 

The little clown looked up into the sky and wished upon a distant star; he closed his eyes and showed his crooked teeth to the moon and offered only the simplest and most humble of wishes: Please, he whispered, Something Nice.  Something happy.  A small, happy thing.

 And so it was that on the first night he spent with Beauteous Munch, the little clown saw the beautiful shooting star tumble all the way down the sky and he thought to himself, So that is what happens when two wishes collide with one another: An old star is freed from the heavens and falls into a distant sea where it becomes a thousand bright and glimmering fishes. A wish come true is a gift that sets the stars free.

And that is the story of how Beauteous Munch came to live with Munch the clown. Together they learned many tremendous and difficult tricks; the little clown taught Beauteous Munch  to ride on the old donkey’s back and walk across a rope and leap through the tiniest of hoops, and all the signs the performers took around and posted in the towns and villages now said “BEAUTEOUS MUNCH –WONDERFUL SHOW DOG!” He was very popular indeed, and people would come from far and wide to see the amazing clown and his astonishing dog.

On clear nights, as Beauteous Munch and his friend the clown tuckled up and drifted off to sleep, they would stare into the sky above them and watch with drowsy wonder as star after star tumbled through the darkness and somewhere, they knew, a wish had come true.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Your Lives In My Tiny Little Hands

This one guy, every couple weeks it's these amazing places you can't even believe, mountains, usually, and he's standing in water or strung up on a cliff and hanging from ropes. He'll bring in ten or twenty rolls of film at a time, and it's gotten so that I look forward to seeing him come through the door. You see the whole world, is how my boss put it when he was training me in. This job is a privilege, he'd say. These people are trusting us with their most private moments.

I've always been one of those guys who isn't much for going places --going places, actually, doesn't bother me; it's the being there that I have a problem with. But it is interesting for me to see these other places and to imagine, you know, my own versions of the stories these pictures might be trying to tell. One time this guy brought in a roll of film and it was nothing but pictures of dead cows --seven dead cows sprawled around in the dirt. There wasn't a single person in any of the photos, just the dead cows, and somebody had taken pink paint and outlined their bodies in the dirt, just like they'd been murdered in the movies.

Of course you get the pictures of women in bathing suits, and people on the toilet --I've seen hundreds of those-- and occasionally actual bare breasts or even some full frontal, although we're not supposed to develop anything that's "too far over the line," as my boss says. But I have to admit that in five years we've never refused to process a single roll of film that I'm aware of.

My own family never took photographs. I don't think I ever saw a camera in either of my parents' hands. These people would come around at school to take photos of the students and I remember bringing home a little packet of those every year but I'm not even sure what my mother would do with them. They didn't go up on the refrigerator like they did at other kids' houses, I know that much. My mother didn't put anything on the refrigerator.

I'm sure people would be horrified to think that we look through their photos, but they must know. It's human nature, my boss says. I think one thing that happens so often is that people will find an old roll of film still in a camera or laying around the house somewhere --in a kitchen drawer or in the glove compartment of their car-- and they'll have completely forgotten what's on there and curiosity gets the best of them so they bring them in to be developed. They bring them in because they want to know, and I think that's when you get some surprises.

People always ask, what's the strangest thing you've ever seen looking at all these photos day after day? And, to be honest with you, that's not an easy question to answer. I've seen so many strange and I guess disturbing things mixed in with the birthday parties and the picnics and parades. More than one person with a gun in their mouth. A dead dog laid out on a kitchen table with a flower in its teeth. This one guy we called the Sign Man, who would take photographs of himself holding hand-lettered signs that said things like, "Tammi, I am not a part of your experiment anymore," or "I am sick and tired of being taken apart by robots." Unsurprisingly, the Sign Man eventually turned in a roll of film with a photo of himself with a gun in his mouth.

I have seen so many babies being born that it is no longer even mysterious or interesting to me. I have seen a hundred families or more standing in front of Mount Rushmore or shaking Mickey Mouse's hand. Young couples in formal wear, of course, getting ready to go to a dance or get married. Little children crouched next to their beds with folded hands, saying their prayers. People in coffins and carnival rides and tombstones. Christmas trees, obviously, and kids sitting on Santa's lap. Lots of people in Halloween costumes. One I do remember in particular was a picture of a cross-eyed little kid with a snail creeping up his tongue. 

People also take a lot of pictures of food, color photos of turkeys and hams and Jello. You see everything, really, pretty much anything you could imagine.

Personally, I like the stuff in the margins, the mistakes and unintentional shots that show what goes on outside the world of what people think of as a picture. I like to study the people who are just standing in the background, looking puzzled and unaware. I couldn't tell you, really, what staring into those pictures makes me feel. Captured, I suppose, the way I feel when I stand far enough outside myself sometimes that I can see how small I am.

I always thought of photos as little trigger-finger wishes, I guess. You know, people press that button and they hope that something will come out that looks like how they want to remember the world and the time they spent living in it and trying to create moments that looked like pictures. Something they can look at and say, "See, here it was. What a grand life we had." Or maybe even, in some of the sadder cases, they want evidence that the nightmares and heartaches they endured were demonstrably real.

So often when people pick up their photographs they can't wait to see if they got what they wanted, and they'll stand right there at the counter and shuffle through them. I'm prepared to swear that the vast majority of these people look clearly disappointed. I've concluded that it must be hard to take a true picture, or at least a picture that captures what you thought --and hoped-- you'd seen, experienced, felt, or looked like or at in that one paralyzed instant. I suppose that's one reason why I've never felt inclined to even try. I'll think I'm seeing the world sometimes, and fear that a photograph would only confirm that I have never done anything but look at the wrong things or in the wrong places.

It's sad when people wish, my mother always said. She'd say, You pray that when you get to a ripe old age you can look back and count the number of really sad days on one hand. Maybe that's why she didn't like photos around, because they were like reminders of all the things that never quite managed to turn out the way she had hoped or planned.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

From The Christmas Attic: The Scandal of Richard Kunkel's Pageant

A lot of folks around town thought there was something special about Richard Kunkel. Big things had been expected of the poor fellow since he was a lad. Certainly no one believed such a fine, bright boy would stick around a jerkwater village like ours for the rest of his life.

Many assumed Kunkel would join the military as had his father, and would rise quickly through the ranks and distinguish himself --and make our town proud-- through some act of heroism. Others thought certain he would become a professional singer. He had such a fine voice, and was always getting up to sing at parties, supper clubs, and special occasions around town. He knew all the songs from the Broadway shows.

As for myself, well, I taught the boy in school, and I thought certain Kunkel would find his place in the political arena. He was the shining star of our debate team, and had such a sharp, quick mind and a keen interest in all the big ideas. I always pictured him smiling and waving from the back of a train, on his way to Washington and waving goodbye to that little town of ours forever.

But, no, sir. It turns out our Richard Kunkel didn't have the ambition God gave a field mouse, and he never went anywhere. Turned down a scholarship to an excellent university out east to stick around and become one of those local "characters" every community seems to harbor against its will.

The fellow couldn't seem to hold a position to save his soul, and it was the death of his dear mother. It really was. After a time rumors began to circulate that Kunkel had a fondness for liquor and spent a good deal of time fleecing the old priests at St. Andrew's at the card table. He never married, and he did seem to spend an inordinate amount of time at the Parish house. Heaven only knows what those fellows were up to over there, but they were known to be a group of beaten men who'd been sent to our community as some sort of punishment.

Still, at least on the surface, Richard Kunkel never did stop being the same friendly, outgoing, and curious fellow that the town had known as a boy. Always had a warm greeting and a kind word. He never amounted to a hill of beans, though, which saddened me. I liked to see our bright young people go out into the world to make something of themselves.

Then one year Richard Kunkel did an unusual and entirely unsuspected thing, a rather scandalous thing in our little scheme of things. Kunkel recruited some children from the church youth group and mounted a Christmas pageant from a play he had apparently written himself and based on some of the questionable stories regarding Saint Nicholas of Myra. In actuality this play had absolutely nothing to do with Christmas and focused on the legend of St. Nicholas's resurrection of three boys --Timothy, Mark, and John-- after they had allegedly been slaughtered, pickled, and sold as meat during a fourth-century famine.

This peculiar incident was described by Kunkel --and most clumsily enacted by his troupe of amateur players-- in obsessive and grotesque detail, complete with much shrieking, writhing, and the liberal spilling of false blood.

This inappropriate production was staged as a prelude to a chili dinner in the church basement --an annual event in the community-- and needless to say whatever point Kunkel was trying to make was entirely lost on the horrified spectators, many of whom were people with young children of their own who had come expecting some celebration of the season.

Kunkel --playing a filthy and half-dressed pawnbroker (St. Nicholas being the patron saint of this profession, or so Kunkel explained in the copiously annotated program notes)-- narrated the play with a disturbing and frequently incoherent zeal. Speculation that Kunkel might have been inebriated was fueled by the fact that his character was swilling from a large bottle of whiskey throughout the production.

A necessary prop, Kunkel later tried to explain, but there were few believers and the damage was done.

The entire cast did reappear on stage at the end, holding hands, to warble through a version of "O Holy Night," but most of them were covered with fake blood, and it was a bit too little, too late.

People should recognize the effect one untoward incident can have on a man's reputation in a small town. I'm not saying local scuttlebutt is always fair and square, but after Richard Kunkel's little lark at the church dinner people's attitudes about him changed. He'd been a bit of a disappointment to that point, to be sure, but this was something else entirely. Richard Kunkel went from a boy of failed promise to the sort of mystery nobody really wanted around. It's sad, but that's the way of the world.

I'm not necessarily going to suggest there was a connection, but Richard Kunkel's mother didn't make it through the winter following the Christmas debacle at St. Andrew's. She died at St. Mark's nursing home in early March. At her funeral the consensus was that her heart had just finally given out.

Kunkel kept a remarkably low profile in the aftermath of his disgrace, and then quietly left town a year or so later after being charged with stealing books from the library. I've heard through the gravevine that these days he's been working at an animal shelter over in Rochester, living with a group of retired priests, and in declining health.