Monday, April 30, 2012

In which reading a novel leaves her flustered and nostaligc, unable to concentrate on the tasks at hand

            I don’t know why I bother with reading books anymore. All they do is crack you open and make you care about things like, I don’t know, passion and longing and yearning and messy uncomfortable stuff that can’t be resolved by a bullet point on a to-do list.
             And, certainly, I must save my strength, my worry, for my never-ending list of tasks which, once completed, will certainly spit out the prize I’ve been working so hard to earn, whatever it is, like one of those claw machines that finally picks up a two-dollar watch you spent eighteen dollars in quarters trying to get.
             I’ve been trying so hard to get it right, to force things to happen. There are goals, action items, lists, emails to answer, things to achieve.
             I’ve been trying to pretend that I am a practical, business-like person who appreciates the simple, beautiful functions of spreadsheets. A little disappointed-- miffed, perhaps -- that a degree in creative writing didn’t prepare me well enough for the “job market.”
             And it didn’t, of course. My first job after college was driving around southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware teaching “reading classes” off a script that was given to me in a big white binder, trying to convince kids that “reading is fun!” because I said so, because other adults said so, because their parents were willing to pay for this class in order to better prepare them for “the job market.”
             But reading is not fun, kids. It’s not fun like an amusement park, or playing video games, or playing soccer. It can be depressing, heart-wrenching, mind-bending. It can make you question your reality, yourself, your life. It can make you see yourself more deeply, possibly in shades that are as not as flattering as you might like.
             Because the truth is, I was not “prepared” for the job market. I was not “prepared” for real life – but is anyone, really? Perhaps my big mistake all along was the misconception that with enough preparation, you can be ready for and able to manage this massively unwieldy, tangled up, randomly-firing gibberish people call life unfolding.
             I can almost feel my 19-year old self cringing at the compromises I have made, am making, even now. She with the Janis Joplin poster on her wall does not accept my reasonable arguments about making a living, affording meals and maybe a house someday, gardening supplies, a plane trip to visit people now and then.
             Because she is unreasonable, that girl, along with many other things. A little embarrassing, perhaps, in her stridency and urgency. But she wouldn’t stand for this shit about grad school and paychecks and gardens. The world is your garden, she would say. Everything is your garden: streetlights, lampposts, the Vietnamese hoagie shop, the bicycles gliding past. And she would mean it. Metaphorically, of course.
             What happened to that girl, the one whose brain circuitry got all blown out when her AP English teacher introduced her to The Wasteland. Who stayed for hours in the college library soaking up memoirs and poems, wrestling with them, trying to make heads or tails of them, reading W.D. Snodgrass as if it mattered, as if it was important to find out what those words meant, why that nice old man took so much time to put them together in that particular way, in that particular order. Surely it meant something to the guy who spent so much time on them, if she could only figure out what.
             What happened to the girl who thought anything was possible, who still didn’t know that she would not, in fact, meet the love of her life in college, who still felt that he (she? nah, probably he...) could be lurking around every corner, it could be any one of these people.
             What happened to she who flipped out over the beauty of dying black-eyed susans on her way home from class, such that she couldn’t wait to get home to write about it. Or even she who haunted the Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris, whose sixth sense, almost, brought her there to the scent of her wildest fantasies, in which she was a bohemian writer-artist traveling through Europe making fast friends, sleeping with people, drinking right from the bottle. Living a little.
             And yet whose good sense always overrode that sixth sense, kept her from  acting on any impulse other than that it would be time to get home soon, the subway closed at midnight, she didn’t want her host mom to worry (if she was even home). She had to complete her homework for her class, she had to earn an A, or the French school for foreigners equivalent, because deep down that was the comforting way she knew how to look at herself: responsible, hardworking, desperate for the approval of whatever random person happened to be in authority.
             Do you see what that has cost you, you silly girl?
             Maybe nothing. You are safe and warm. But once upon a time you dared to dream that there was something more to life than safe and warm.
             I don’t apologize to her, the 19-year old with the Janis Joplin poster. She was kind of ridiculous in many respects, often too strident, impossibly insecure. She toed that odd line of wanting to befriend everyone and wanting to tell everyone to fuck off. She could never quite choose. Maybe still can’t.
             But she was a bit of pretender, that girl. She’d could really only identify one or two Janis Joplin songs, although she was massively fond of Bobby McGee. Thumbing a diesel down, hitching a ride to New Orleans, that sounded alright to her. Of course, J.Jop died real young, and at this point I can’t really get behind that.
             It’s one thing to make an album or two of smoking, epic passion and then flame out early and die. It’s another thing to stick around as life mellows and grows more complex, gains additional flavors to those of hot pepper and raw nerve. It can get slower, deeper, more subtle, maybe even richer. More heartbreaking, more confusing.
             Maybe the girl with the Janis Joplin poster would have said fuck you to all of that. But Janis Jopin did not have the balls, ultimately (and who can blame her), for growing older and learning new things; gaining wisdom; watching her parents age and contemplate the fact that they will eventually die and perhaps could have been happier in life; having to make sacrifices and compromises; paying the steep steep prices that continuing to live can sometimes exact.
             I do miss that girl, though. She left by degrees, slowly was replaced with another girl who could appreciate not just the cracked-out urgency of the Beats but whose mind began to open and unfold despite herself toward poets of a quieter, subtler, more nuanced ilk.
             She never wanted to be like those old boring gray-haired poets who lived in the woods and smoked pipes and wrote poems appreciating all the birds and twigs and leaves. Sounded like the most boring thing in the world.
             Maybe what she could not yet appreciate was how absolutely ravaged you tend to be by the time you have the privilege of living to be old enough to go gray.
             Maybe she couldn’t appreciate how much those boring old duffers had lost along the way to their lonely cottages in the woods.
             How maybe the only solace, the only truth they had left were those stupid woodchucks or the smell of damp soil in the morning or the way sunlight dapples things or the way words look and sound on a page.
             Maybe she didn’t give them credit for knowing that these small tokes of natural beauty or calm, contemplative sadness were not really enough, all told, to make this gradual wasting process called life worth it— but that they felt that perhaps they should try, anyway.
             Perhaps she did not appreciate the nobility, the courage, if it can be called that, of all those hill-rambling old men with hearts like spent charcoal, trying to keep a few smoldering embers alive.    

Sunday, April 29, 2012

On Breaking Bread

On Friday Heather came over for dinner. She grew up next door to us back home, like another sister. She was in town for a conference. My parents and sister brought lasagna, bread, salad. I set out cheese and crackers. We talked about the old days and the new days, the days we are in right now and the ones to come. Almost all the neighbors from that block are gone now and exist together only in my indelible memory of a place that still exists, houses that still stand, but a time that is gone. I'm making it sound sadder than it is. Other kids are riding their bikes up and down that driveway, climbing that really good tree (I hope to god they are still climbing that tree), crawling behind the forsythia bush.

I hope they have the chance to play together like we did, forming a noisy blob that floated effortlessly through the neighborhood, known and safe wherever we went. I hope they still don't need to lock the doors and  and that they can still hear the Metro North commuter train quaking across the tracks a few times a day. I hope their biggest troubles, like mine were, are forgetting their musical instruments at home on band day, or not having any clean socks. I hope when they're sixteen religious zealots don't fly planes into nearby buildings and send that whole fever dream of safety and security crashing to the ground. And I hope nobody gets sick or hurt and they never learn what a hospital waiting room is like. I hope nobody calls in the middle of the night. I hope they aren't eaten alive with anxiety or mysterious aches and pains. I hope the recession ends and they all pursue their most passionate interests in a positive and remunerative way.

But if they can't have all of those things, I hope at the least they make a friend who becomes like family, who they can go a long time without seeing but when they see her next, be reassured by how much she both has changed and is the same. And I hope at least they can get a chance to sit around a table sharing a meal and getting nostalgic for a time when they didn't even know how good they had it.

I am starting to not feel that young anymore. I'm starting to feel like I've done a some living by now, like I have lifetimes behind me already. At Michelle's house on Saturday I kept forgetting whether I knew her from high school or college. It all blurs together. Old friends are old friends.

Her new house is an adorable ca. 1912 temple of sturdy Edwardian craftsmanship, hardwood floors and built-in shelving and a fireplace that works, books and wine and baking and cooking. The four of us, the two couples, stayed up late making pizzas and drinking wine and later scotch and solving all the problems of our modern age. We woke up to a sun-swept Sunday morning and Michelle made breakfast.

That right there is the good stuff of life, the living that I'm always so preoccupied with figuring out how to do. You share a meal, you share stories and memories and news and ideas and opinions. You find out which great-aunt's attic the furniture came from. You eat and you drink. You give and receive. You say thank you and you're welcome and please. Especially thank you. Especially that.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Open Flowers In the Windy Fields of This War-Torn World

After the heavy rains everything is fresh and brightly scrubbed this morning. The plants are an outrageous, insouciant, defiantly hopeful shade of bright, bright green. Walking the Little Charge to the school bus, every shade of pink blossom is available: azalea, cherry, dogwood, in every possible shade.

We wait for the bus stop quietly, each lost in our thoughts. The air is cool bordering on cold. The words of that old kids' song come to me:

This is the song that never ends. It goes on and on my friend. Some people started singing it, not knowing what it was, and they'll continue singing it forever just because...

It was always a nonsense song but this morning it seems like an apt metaphor, the never-ending song being the song of life. Some people started these wheels on the bus in motion, had no idea what they were doing, and we carry and renew that tune on and on forever, still no closer to having a clue, but we'll keep on singing it forever, just because.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

In Medias Res

Goodnight rainy night. Today I drove through the rain to commemorate another year older, Redbeard and his dad have birthdays in the same week. We did that age-old sit around and eat and drink and tell the stories that become us, or that slowly we become. As I drove through the rain I tried to be grateful and mindful, rain pattering, wipers wiping.

And on the way home that familiar stretch of Walnut street when you first see the skyline of the city headed east back in, I was overcome with a wave of something like nostalgia, like a tenderness or a kindness toward Redbeard and myself, how we grapple and hang on, try to untangle the knots and move forward and make some of this progress you hear so much about. What then, once we make it? Do we think there will be no more progress after that? Do we hope to reach a state of perfection after which there is no more problems, no more struggle? And yet every morning we wake up, fight it out, soaring victories, crushing defeats, and then the middle times that are like a march or a trudge or walk across a lawn on a summer night sweeping your flashlight from left to right.

That skyline. Seen me through so many chapters, so many phases, hard to even keep track of them all. Sometimes it reminds me of the bigness of things, of the view from the uppermost floors, from which all my days and cares and most earnest most fervent thoughts, memories, feelings, wishes, desires, plans seem impossibly, laughably small.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Super Fucked-Up Squared Times A Million

In two days it will be one year since my cousin Alfred died. I hate that, because a year sounds like a long time, but it doesn't feel like a long time. The wound is fresh. And I hate it because after one year comes two years, three, and four, and on an on, and that is too long to live without him. One year has already been too long.

After his death I decided I needed to do something with my life. I needed to try to make my own life worthwhile. A year later I've been accepted to grad school to learn what I hope will be a profession where I can be of service.

It has been a year of being brave and soldiering on and life going on even after you're convinced it can't and won't, and not wanting it to.

But now I'm tired. I don't want to be brave anymore, I can't fathom a life of having to be this brave. I want to go back to the way it was, back when everything was a normal amount of fucked-up, not super fucked-up squared times a million.

I'm tired of keeping the faith, telling myself that life is precious and worth living. Life is barbaric, people are awful, corporations are slowly going to squeeze us until we die penurious in the street, probably of drinking tainted fracking water or eating unregulated meat juice or the terrorists winning.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

On Patience

I've been impatient. Tulips are shooting up all over the place, the daffodils and forsythia blooms are almost past their prime. I'm ready for promising shoots to come bursting up in my life, too. I am waiting to hear back from the Top Choice School about my interview, waiting to hear from Second Choice School Which I Would Happily and Gratefully Attend about whether or not they have any graduate assistant monies for me; waiting to hear from some part time jobs I applied for to see if any of those time parts are for me; waiting to tell my landlord whether or not we will be able to afford this apartment next year; waiting to see if Redbeard gets a job offer; waiting for money to come in; waiting, waiting, waiting.

Last night all the waiting broke me down and I called my wise aunt who listened and murmured sympathetically, which was just exactly what I wanted. And she reminded me that often eventually the universe or the cosmos or whatever eventually makes clear what the course will be. So here I am, waiting for paperwork to go through, waiting for a sign, waiting for them to open the velvet barricades surrounding my next step.

It is frustrating, of course. I want to CONTROL, I want to MANAGE, I want to HANDLE things. I want assurance, I want certainty, I want direction, I want answers!

But these things are doggedly, determinedly, annoyingly unfolding in their own time. And that skill, the skill of waiting, letting go, letting things not one that I could say I've mastered yet. I cling to the illusion that there is such a thing as certainty in life, that a certain email or a certain letter will guarantee the things I want: security, stability, a sense of peacefulness about the future, assurance that everything's going to be OK.

On the other hand, that shit probably doesn't actually come via email. It's not something you order off Amazon and track via UPS feverishly until it lands on your doorstep. It's not a letter, it's not a package, it's not a thing at all, and you don't receive it with your eyes or hands.

It arrives without warning (and sometimes goes just as quickly as it came.) But I think there are ways to put yourself in a more receptive mood. Example given: I went for a jog-walk this morning. The sky was an epic blue. All those bulbs planted in fall have fearlessly shot up through people's front yards. The song "I'm Alive" by The Hooters came on the ipod - reminding me that wherever I go it's amazing to know I'm alive.

And I had that familiar feeling where I wake up to the place and time where I actually am, look around and say to myself, "You know what? This is nice."

Peacefulness, a feeling that everything's going to be OK, those don't come from Admissions offices. They comes from within, from knowing thyself and knowing that you can trust yourself to "fall down seven times, stand up eight." Knowing that you can cultivate those activities and thoughts and situations and even people in your life that give you a sense of well-being and rightness in the world...regardless of where you are in your life, where you've been, where you're headed, where you want to go.

These moments come in flashes, and being ready for them and inviting them requires some footwork of us, and it doesn't always work perfectly. But when they do come, they are a gift, and it behooves us to say thank you: Thank you!

PS - While I was typing this post, one of those external, temporary answers did come in over email - I have an interview next Thursday. Go figure.