Red Car versus Cold Blues

“This is it,” I whispered as my 2005 Pontiac Sunfire lost traction, sledding past the edge of the sloping curve, down a snow-swamped bank, and into an inescapable pocket next to a stump. My luck made itself known immediately: an officer from the county jail found me and let my chat with him in his truck. I was one county away from home after a half-day’s drive from Washington DC, I explained, and once I got into South-west Michigan I decided to take country roads so I could be in from the blizzard faster. Officer John and I discussed life transitions and my employment situation; I accepted what had happened, waiting there for my stepfather and trusting that all would be well. I was impressed with my own calm. The journey had already changed my perspective in small ways — listening to pop music, realizing what was important to me back in Maryland, convincing myself that my time in Michigan would be formative. It is becoming formative but, believe me, losing my car off the side of the road has not been the greatest challenge. The tow-truck driver treated us terribly the next morning, due to a miscommunication between county and state police about the status of the vehicle, but even that seems like a funny anecdote now.

Unemployed and in debt, I returned at the suggestion of my mother and stepfather, for no more than eight weeks, to help them with my grandmother and earn some money to pay my back-rent. I thought it might be a simple respite from feeling stuck. I did not realize how deep my rut in Maryland has really been… nor did I fully appreciate how it was affecting someone else until… …mind if I skip around a little? This is going to be gloriously POORLY written because I just need to—

* * *

Fiona at camp, 2009

I named her Fiona Sunfire. One day in April my paternal grandparents shocked me with the gift of a key-fob… with a key in it. They walked me, in a half-stunned state, into the driveway to meet a red compact with gorgeous lines (I don’t care what anyone else thinks about Pontiacs or Sunfires– I was elated). Fiona didn’t make my life instantly better; I was finishing my undergraduate studies and unsure how to find employment. A then-girlfriend (AC) invited me to work with her at the summer camp where we had met– by awful coincidence my parents split-up and my maternal grandfather died in the same weekend. Just like that, I was climbing into Fiona Sunfire to find a space of peace, a space I could control, and a means of going forward. Undercurrents of emotion that had laid dormant or else stifled during college came to the surface like geysers. One relationship ended while another began; my circle for friends became different, smaller; I was angry at my father for initiating the divorce and as for my mother– nothing I said seemed to make a difference to her but… …gradually, I found an abandoned cabin on camp grounds where I could scream, sing, pray. All of the nameless angst seemed to suddenly have labels. Two years later, I changed all the labels and moved out of the country. While Fiona sat in a garage on the farm in Michigan, I was angry with the apartheid regime in Israel. In Washington, the feelings followed even as the attached issues continued to change. I notice, as I reflect, the anger faded into irritability, that into anxiety, and sometimes that would wear away to reveal… …nope. For a long time I went to therapy and kept-up the story: there were irritations, injustices, and worries. I gave all of my feelings the same level of dignity, assigning them real-life causes and explanations. I was tentative to suspect what I suspect, now… …or perhaps I suspected but refused to indict. Is the effect the same?

* * *

My friend Megan poses in Charlotte, NC

I once loaded Fiona and drove overnight to visit my friends in Charlotte. I knew my mood was slipping and I believed that seeing friendly faces in a different climate would make the difference; I wanted a quick fix. Quickly, I hustled through the snowy night, across the plains of Ohio, and into the mountains of West Virginia. Then, Fiona had siped tires (tiny grooves cut into the treads for better ice-traction). Despite the falling snow, I sped through the mountains and into Virginia and North Carolina at speeds in excess of 70 mph, passing other cars with confidence and glee. The snowy weather moved even faster. A few friends makes some difference but the glum pall lingered even there. It seemed vanquished in the Palestinian summer, six months later, but at a year-to-date from my Charlotte trip it was raining in Bethlehem, and in Ireland, and it might as well have been dark in Amman by the time I was there… alone with no orders to busy myself with nor means of going forward…

* * *

It gets worse, first. Last May I had a terribly job and a wonderful girlfriend. I lost the former. My car became my greatest financial asset, something assured and safe. It was the vehicle of our vacation, my means of shuttling back and forth to her home, to Quaker meetings, and would-be interviews — there were few. The labels and explanations became her stalker, her ex, my former supervisor, our current president, myself… …this part is hard to explain. I thought I had outrun decline, at last. Fiona carried me out of the house where my room was too small into a beautiful apartment that cost much more. Fiona carried me back to somewhere every day/night I wanted. The apartment became the symbol of my tunnel-vision for the past several months. As long as I could stay there, I thought everything would be okay. Even as the spaces of that apartment became haunted with — intrusive thoughts. The disappointment seemed to ferment and distill into bitter thoughts. To go into detail is painful. A steady trickle of intrusive, bitter ideas had followed me since I first packed Fiona for camp, they born from tensions in college that, themselves, I had always found ways to catalog and explain. My trickle became a stream, then a river. It overflowed its banks — I stayed two months extra in my apartment without paying, convinced that a job break-through would become the dam. Becoming displaced seemed like the worst possible thing. At the same time, I was apprehensive to share how dire my situation was becoming — except with my girlfriend. I would explain further but I think I should just repeat: my girlfriend was fully aware of the state I was gradually working myself into but the rest of my network remained largely un-activated — I imagined waiting until my breakthrough, to break the good news that I was going to be okay, that I had overcome the adversity of my own power, that I had worth, that I should be loved by… … …me? Meanwhile, she has way too much on her plate already…

* * *

The 1970 Stingray I got to TOUCH under the hood.

When we finally got her away from the tow-truck driver, Fiona had a bad case of the shakes. I recognized the end of an era creeping upon me. I was ready to accept. Yet what I surmised and what I felt were not the same. Soon, Fiona was in the auto and boat shop with my stepfather and his cohorts. We gleaned the snow and grit out of her undercarriage and the shaking ceased. I learned to change the oil and the oil filter, watched a broken headlight repaired, and worked with Mike and Paul to secure my loosened muffler. Fiona was going to be okay but I was not.

For a while, the carpenter with whom I was supposed to work was out of contact — but he called and I worked with him this week. That was not the problem. In the mean time I spent some time looking after my 94 year old grandmother; she is increasingly frail and confused– but that is not the problem, either. I went to work with my stepfather in the car and boat shop many of these days but that is definitely not the problem. His coworkers have been downright sweet and supportive to me; Paul let me help him check fluids on a 1970 Corvette Stingray. For just a moment I sat in the driver’s seat to pop the hood… but that doesn’t make it all better.

The sinking feelings became heavier and heavier — I am having some right now. I felt the cold, the distance. Text messages are not enough. Sitting next the lamp, reading to distract myself, I couldn’t stop checking. Most days are overcast like dull nickel and just as dark, the temperatures often below… below…
I imagine myself walking down the beach at lake Michigan. I imagine myself walking onto the pier. I imagine the end is icy, that there might be ice going out for yards, that there is a lapping edge… “If THAT happens, then…” and etc. and etc. I know it’s toxic but. I know but what will I do? I don’t know what to do. It’s dark. If something good happens, then. Is she…? We’re okay? I know I should be doing. Which? I can’t decide. I just want. If THAT happens. What’s? Is something wrong over there? What’s wrong with? Me? The Lake. That would work. Every thing, all of it, would finally.
These thoughts hearken-back to others had throughout the Autumn.  I said to her once “I wish I was dead,” and I’ve regretted it ever since. That should have been when I called the therapist but I was habituated to the morbidity in my thoughts.
“Maybe I’ll… maybe I’ll” “Staying the course, quit panicking…” “I need to check, I need to stay close with her…” “Maybe I’ll drive back, since Fio–” “The Lake, it’s cold enough, if THAT happens on top of everything else–” “Don’t let any of this show… you can’t show. Don’t talk about it. Just. I should be doing some–” “Maybe we’re okay–” “I’m not okay but–” “But the Lake is cold enough if–” “Don’t become a self-fulfilling prophesy–” “Why? Whywhywhywhywhywhywhy” “Don’t let anyone see…..”

One morning I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit washing over me like waves on a shore; I cried and understood it as a reassurance. I ought to know by now that God is the sort of parent that pats me most tenderly right before an even greater level of pain and difficulty. Don’t stop reading– come all the way to the end with me.

Finally, the power-cord to my computer died. Let me take a deep breath instead of explaining my luck with electronics. As soon as the power-cord died, I decided that what I was doing was not working. I decided I needed help. It was prescient of me. The next day I had a conversation I had been dreading and– it was private. Nothing is completely under water. There are reservations. There is the need for space. There is… more passive voice to describe without giving details. How much is too much to say? I understood; I found clarity. The anxiety issues are becoming more clear in hindsight. I feared to see them because the way forward is not … my apartment. I wish it were daylight when I am writing this. Where is daylight? How am I going to prove… What am I doing?  Not jumping into a cold lake. Never. That line of thinking and all similar are now flagged as invaders. They cannot be reconciled, or ‘solved’ — they must be dismissed. Not by ignoring. We’re going to. I promise there is hope. The cycle is going to end, even if THAT happens. If THAT happens, I’m still going to hang-in-there. I’m never going to threaten The Lake to try to prevent THAT; that’s not what I want! I want to LOVE! I want to be here to show support.

What am I doing?

* * *

I have been taking action ever since. It’s mostly because I love her, I can’t lie; I couldn’t get started down this path any other way– not with my history. Someone had to love me as the adult I am, not get hungover on loving me for the child I was. As the support network comes alive, they say the things they should say, things that are correct but not resonant. I am supposed to focus on taking care of myself. Something people have difficulty understanding is that my self-respect and self-love are not the same; that conceptual difference escapes most people. Someone said “but they go hand-in-hand” to which I said “yes, and one of them is limping.” My self-respect is what I believe about my capabilities and the ideals I should represent– it’s high. Self-love is more nuanced. For the first time, I am willing to entertain that getting treatment is not a temporary course to correct something detrimental in my experience but a life-long course to do whatever it takes to be functional — to love myself and others as best as I can. In the former case, medicine seems like something to be avoided because it introduces variables that could prolong. The latter accepts that this struggle is already prolonged –it denies the narrative I’ve told myself: that I have successive, separate struggles. All struggles are one because she loved me for as long as she did– because she said she still does, despite reservations. Inherent is a threatening uncertainty but a basic truth remains: somebody loved me, finally! Wonderful! Terrible! Wonderful because this cycle of labels and escapes and and and would continue but now it is going to end. Terrible because I might have come to this point too late to save the love that made it possible? Too late to become strong and return that love twelve-fold? It would be such a shame and I won’t let that happen without putting forth the best effort…

I am doing things…but I will not do them alone. This is the time to contact everyone I was shy to ask for assistance. I’m trying not to judge myself anymore as I spit all of this out. I was so afraid to discover that there wasn’t any hope at all and boxed myself into that apartment. Yet. Yet there was always this will to go forward, ever since I first put Fiona into gear. I remember a counselor I saw for just eight weeks, named Lennox Forester; he had the aura of a church-uncle but I’ll never forget his answer to my assertion that ‘nothing had worked yet’ — “you haven’t given-up yet, though…” he said, smiling at me. Some might call my elevated self-respect ‘pride’ but it also does not allow me to ever fully despair. When my thoughts about Lake Michigan became a near-plan for suicide, I made even more explicit plans to see my cousin in North Carolina if “THAT” happened… even if I had to repeat my feat with Fiona, driving 70+ through the mountains in the winter. A major source of hope is actually tangled-up in my bad behavior. All of my coping mechanisms, misleading categorizations, and other not-quite-enough efforts… all of that is evidence of my determination to overcome, even when my understanding of “what will I do?” was less clear. I am actually just as strong as I always wanted to be– I just have a greater handicap than I ever wanted to realize. I can be worthy of love (of self-love?)… I can get where I need to be, I’ve always had the WILL. I need help with direction and, yes, there is help…

I called my old therapist and set an appointment for two weeks from now. Fiona and I are running into the sunrise together — we’re stopping to see good friends in Pennsylvania (arranged). My Quaker Meeting is creating a support committee that will help me discern what my next steps should be. When I lost my apartment, I was welcomed into the home of a former classmate… who works in my career field. He told me to “hang-in-there”. A friend from college: “hang-in-there”. A close mutual friend of my girlfriend and I: “hang-in-there”. Mike and Paul in the auto-garage: “hang-in-there”. Old friends on the telephone, with whom I haven’t spoken in months, say “hang-in-there”. I got notification about a possible interview, I told myself “hang-in-there”.

Pessimistic thoughts. Impatient thoughts. Angry thoughts. Fatal thoughts. Jealous thoughts. Prejudiced thoughts. Self-righteous thoughts. Tired and discouraged thoughts, panicked thoughts: I told them all “Well, that’s not helping.” I’m talking back to them — like they are coming from somewhere else. They are not coming from my core-intentions. They were never coming from my core intentions. That’s why I was always of ‘two-minds’ about my girlfriend’s children or her ex or whatever thing… this anxious streak has trouble with uncertainty but I, me, myself, JD, am a loving person. I intend love, strength, and support. I’m going to talk back to these errant thoughts with a new confidence. I used to discuss with them as if they were part of me but not I am going to shout-them-down because they are not ‘me’. They are gliches, bad-wiring. I am a noble machine with a few cross-threads and crossed-wires… I’m not going to the junkyard, I’m a classic. I need T L C from my communities…


This turned from a story into a long vent. A vent that I needed. There is so much more……….

This piece ought to end with some neat piece of information. Over two years ago my sister met a man at a costume party in Fort Wayne, IN hosted by mutual friends. They dated long-distance. I met the guy several times and thought he was okay — yet I was reluctant to put much ‘heart’ into getting to know him. I knew my sister loved him but the distance in their relationship made me wonder if they would last. He and I finally talked… about relationships, anxiety, depression, and the processes involved. He talked about feeling like he was ‘smart’ and supposed to “think his way out of it” — Me Too. He shared about his reluctance to talk about it or get any attention for his struggles because… people would laugh? He didn’t deserve the attention? — Me Too. We both took years. Both of us, each of us, sunk years into trying to attach whatever-it-is to outside reasons, to circumstances or other people. Though I’ve spoken with many people since THAT-almost-happened, this conversation was the most comforting of all. He understood so well — and he could be my brother-in-law. It was uncanny how relieved it felt to finally connect to him; I felt a little pang of resistance at the beginning but I let it go. That little pang of resistance is something I’m learning to let go, even though it didn’t appear to be related to the BIG aches. There are many small appendages to ‘this’ … and none of them quite belong but all of them require more patience, more love, from me. Love for me from myself for the sake of addressing these ‘impulses’ that are not welcome in myself. Not anymore. Even if THAT happens and no one loves me again, I’m not letting the love I experienced go entirely to waste.

Even if Fiona breaks-down (she will)… I suppose I don’t need her to run forever because I have stopped running forever.


Laura Returns Again

Laura on the Lake

She is happy, now,

in my dream by the lake.

I see her cascading chocolate

hair and citrine eyes set

deeply in grinning cheeks,

soft cheeks I don’t quite

kiss. I don’t quite embrace

her; she plays in the shallows

with my Aunt’s granddaughters—

who did not exist, then—

near what was Grams’ house before

she became only impressions too.


The sun doesn’t need to shine

because light comes from every cloud:

a day overcast with contentment

bottled in a night’s fitful reverie.

I cut my finger. I go inside the

labyrinthine house, corrupted by

my dreaming mind. Grams’ living

room, family room, dining room

are (“Grams?”)

all lost in a knot of hallways

leading to bathroom cupboards bereft

of bandages. Gauzy visions are,

ironically, (“Grams?”)

sans gauze: nothing to wrap around

my unconscious wound. Winding back

out of the ruins, I look for her

again. Laura is gone. She evaporated

when the sense-making of my brain

found the classic error. The class

error I made in high school: putting

her where I wanted her to belong,

at my grandmother’s house with my Dad’s

family. She only smiles in my dreams,

(she only smiled thusly in my dreams?)

then obliterates as my back turns.

I emerge as the sun parts the clouds

and lucidity dawns. Looking in

all directions, I now see

only my Aunt and her family, only

the emotionally and financially secure.


I know I am dreaming; yet I try to

conjure her by calling and calling

her name at the growing light

at the end of the pier. I recall her

but she does not reappear, no matter

how I will it. I promised she would

belong with me forever. My promise

surfaces from the long-gone lake,

is shuttered in the long-gone rooms,

of houses sold to strangers, and never

regains the flavor of darkened backstage

lips nor of flesh parked on country-lanes.


Teenage sweetheart, tempestuous:

she loved boat-rides and singing but

also storms, werewolf stories, and

dark woods by her step-father’s modular

home. I dreamed escape, upward mobility,

and places where she and I belonged

together. There she is,

in dreams, stripped of her inherent potent-

tragedies, her rat-bite temper, the

geysers of frustration and vivid,

justified sadness: inherited despair.


Piers and tears both became rivers; Laura

reached the edge of youth and uncovered

the mouth of her chasm, her visage

a photo just before the fall into an abyss,

while I meandered, a decade later

into an ocean, and another ocean–

we are both long-gone from that lake…

but I kept beckoning

her until awakening.

* * *

In the latest dream, Laura and I enter our home together after an apparent lapse in our relationship. She and I started dating when we were each fifteen though a year apart in school; we stayed close for almost eighteen months, blew-apart just before my senior year, then relapsed just after I turned eighteen. Some limbic memory of mine retains the possibility that Laura and I are on hiatus. That degree of Romeo & Juliet Effect must carry such hidden properties, like elicit drugs leaching from fattened nooks in the body during a metabolic shift. My step-father asks me to help him move a Chevy Nova, Laura’s step-father drag-raced a Nova fifteen years ago, and so yesterday’s adventure hits my brain-nooks like a seismic wave. Laura and I are finally adults; other people’s fears and opinions are irrelevant. My belief and vision of this were so deeply and tightly held that impressions remain, like the impressions of glaciers remain as lakes to this day. Each of us was unhappy in Cassopolis, yet if we could just be anywhere else together, free of the aura of poverty that threatened my family and choked hers, then we might both be happy. In a quasi-paternalistic way, I held myself responsible for ensuring that her like would get better. I took it too much for granted that mine would be secured.

Of course, I wouldn’t be in Michigan helping my step-father move cars and boats if my future were secured. The only other woman I dream about is my current girlfriend: N. Interestingly, if someone had speculated what the love of my life might ‘be’ like when I was fourteen, before Laura, they might describe someone like N: a scientist (botanist) and biology teacher, who happens to be an older woman with two artistic daughters. Laura loved singing and the theater, like me, but she was dyslexic, emotionally erratic, and very into horror movies. I loved her with the heat of a brand-new furnace. Laura did love to hike with me, indeed, and N is quite the hiker herself. My longest love, AC, was an avid hiker but I must be at peace with her memory; two years together, in the afterglow of a camp-counselor romance, yet AC never revisits me in dreams. K hasn’t since we apologized to each other. A, not even when we were dating (sorry) and I laughed at Ashley E. in her last appearance. Naturally, N is in my dreams– shepherding her kids, removing her bra under her shirt, and even cavorting with another woman (an insecurity of mine that we are not going to explore) — she is current and complete: my present. For Laura to appear at intervals forever, but not other exes, is as intriguing as it is… beautiful. Why my first romance? Primacy Effect? Or something unresolved…

The last I heard about Laura, she was rumored to have checked into a psych ward — she had a young child by then. She sent me a message when we were both nineteen that she was engaged and already pregnant but reliable sources told me the man jilted her. By then, my rescue fantasies had lost all of their romance and become brotherly. Moreover, K and Ashley made better ‘villains’ to dwell upon in my lonely years (unfairly and fairly, respectively) — Laura became a fond remembrance coupled with a sigh: was she okay? Is she alive? I will never know. Awake, I am not certain I ever want to know.

Yet, as I said, the Romeo & Juliet Effect was most powerful with her. I punched my father in the face when he forbid me to date her again. In hindsight, we should have JUST IGNORED each other but my teenage angst, the years of being infantilized, still clung to my eighteen-year-old ribs and my father mistook me for the still-green seventeen-year-old that had lived in his home earlier. I punched his left temple so hard it wrecked the frame of his glasses. Fully expecting a boxing match, I prepared the seeds of vicious jabs saved over years — and my superior footwork— for fertile testing grounds*. I digress: I went to greater lengths for her. Far from the relaxed hours spent drinking wine and watching bad television with AC, Laura and I were always fighting for pockets where we could express our passion. I caused controversy with my Aunt when I brought Laura to a family gathering without asking. School administrators were hot-and-bothered by our displays of affection. Even my band-director chaffed me about rubbing against my girlfriend while in uniform. From every angle, someone older was trying to pry us apart while I gradually steeled my resolve to be committed, to rescue her and empower myself. The skeleton of Romeo & Juliet Effect is psychological reactance, which is people’s resistance to being commanded. Its flesh is passion, our unrequited. She and I had a romance filled with longing, without consummation. The final step was always in the future, unrealized but expected as if inevitable, ultimately right. Seriously.

This morning I discerned that this all comes from my vision, not my memories. Laura is a maraschino-cherry version of herself in dreams, drained of all the tart notes that made her distinct and replaced with only syrup. She always appears as her best self– unlike N, who can appear as any of her facets. Laura is always fully clothed, never raises her voice, and she loves me with a steady calm. Inside of our home together, I started to wonder how we were going to pay our rent. I knew I needed to get a job. I started to think about my Masters degree, then anachronistically about when Laura and I should wed: at twenty or twenty-one? Neurons short-circuited. I am thirty-one; I’ve already been away to East Lansing, later to Washington–
–now my brain flies me to Maryland–

–then I am awaking in Michigan, alone–

The rest only matters in poetry.

*To my surprise, he wrestled me to the ground. To this day, he may mistakenly believe that he over-powered me but that was actually my golden opportunity. His arms were too high, protecting his face. That was the moment for body-shots. I took a deep breath and readied. I knew what came next: addle his soft mid-drift. I was going to pummel his viscera and show him how strong I was, strong enough to hurt him. I was grown! I could force my will upon his body! My will faltered when I recognized: Dad hadn’t thrown a punch. He made no additional moves, nothing to indicate that he wanted anything other than to stop me from punching his face again. The prospect of body-shots reeked of something malignant, something alien and evil, when I sensed that my father hoped the physical part was already over. The element of surprise dissolved and what surfaced instead surprised me: we started to talk. I wrote a whole piece on it which was never ready to be posted…

A River to Wash the Pain

I feel like I need to get this off of my chest: I lacked courage all along. Just now I asked myself “why don’t I feel like writing even though I know I want to be an author?” yet another instance in scores of times. This time I answered myself honestly: “because I don’t want to feel how far from excellent, perfect, and totally confident I am at that art.” I know that I need to go through an awkward, even repulsive exploratory stage and I do fear that time will soon be biting my heels, since I could have chanced writing garbage in my teens and twenties rather than waiting for a Light from Heaven to make the task easy. I did not suffer from lack of encouragement. I suffered from always finding some cramp or another in my life to rob me of extra energy, and therefore provide me with endless excuses, distractions, and even responsibilities. The final category is most insidious because those things are easily mistaken for things I ‘should’ be doing. All the while, I’ve often kicked myself both for not reading enough and not writing enough, for not reviewing what I’ve already done enough and for not doing new things enough. I’ve been like an overly strict parent to myself.

Not so with music. My passion burned hot at a tender age, then slackened under the corrosive influence of my teenage days. At only seventeen or eighteen I had to shoulder the heartbreak of not being good enough for the two schools of music I auditioned for– yes, I only auditioned at two schools and expected life to hand me a success. I failed in auditions and excelled at application essays. Dr. John T. Madden, then director of athletic bands, urged me to continue at Michigan State University… as an English major because I wrote eloquently. Yet when I spent a month away from the trumpet, I swear to you that an alcove under a bridge enticed my sixth sense. I knew its acoustics would be exquisite; I went beneath the bridge to nurse the musician in me who would not die. In Creative Writing classes I did well but was plagued by the need for deadlines, sometimes even for whiskey, to get me over my speed-bumps. Meanwhile, I found even more nooks in which to keep my embouchure dredged, toned, and ready in case I miraculously returned to music as a career.

Reality eventually hit me hard. After my undergraduate days, my writing became inconsistent — as it is to this day. My personal life collapsed, which is an inevitability in life. Something remarkable happened: I gave myself permission to be the shitty musician who plays in a riverside park every day. Again, some space was calling to the musician in me. This time, I gave myself wholly to the notion that I had no future — I was only playing to be playing. Fully present with the instrument, I could be absent to the rest of my failings. Despite or even because of having less talent and promise as a musician than as a writer, I became a musician in the truest sense: I’d rather die than not play, I’d rather not die so I could keep playing. The voice of the inner musician saved me at age 24 and then again just a few weeks ago– I play at a blues jam. The funniest part is that I am a better musician after seven years. I knew it was possible but I could not set my sights on something that took so long. I had to close my eyes to the future because I lacked that kind of patience… yet the patience to be imperfect on my instrument, in the present moment, was something that I gained automatically.

I never stopped believing in myself, neither as a writer nor a musician. As a musician, I stopped worrying about myself as much. The black dots and lines of classical training went away and I relied wholly on my ears, probing for sounds, and getting better at improvising… rehearsing the feeling of getting lost and finding my way in scales, lately in blues chord progressions or attempted variants of familiar tunes. There were no more ‘mistakes’, as if I were performing for invisible audiences, as whatever I played would go forward and backward in imagined time like tides rising and falling– trying this combination of notes, then another, then changing the inflection again…

…it’s easy to forget how difficult it used to be. Those first few weeks by the river, with a broken heart, hearing my mistakes on trumpet was still painful. My resolution was to feel the pain in the presence of the river and my music, feel the pain of my imperfections on trumpet along with the rest of my decaying life. Practice makes happy, as music students sometimes say, and I gave myself the gift of a facet of life that I could improve upon. Moreover, I am so much an audiophile that I eventually became my own supporter; who else but me can play me what I am feeling? I can play you all what I am feeling without feeling as vulnerable, since my faults are transliterated in music; listeners are free to interpret.

Here, in ink, I am still my own biggest critic and I fear my words are less elastic. Glancing at my guitar, the one I can’t actually play, I am reminded of how much striving goes into art. Terms like “process-oriented” versus “product-oriented” are missing the crucial dialectics of art. Is the art a module to add on top of yourself, to try to stretch your outline bigger in this world, or is it an emulsifier — something you use to blur that outline and transform?


Conflux #1 offers conflux as a synonym for confluence, as “a flowing together” or “the act of blending together components thoroughly”; its connotations are slightly different from the riparian ‘confluence’, which is the name of a nascent entry that I never wrote because I could not get it perfectly in-mind.  After browsing an entry by a blogger who liked my previous post (in August), I wanted to answer his critique of diversity-driven comic-book plots but I lacked a good angle. Firstly, I do not read comic-books. Secondly, I did not want to offer any more trite ‘white-privilege whack-a-mole-ing’ that fails to benefit anyone disadvantaged. It also grows boring to read white people’s empty castigations of each other– its just another film on the surface occluding our view of the channels beneath.

Still, my reader needs to realize that diverse identities, encounters, and relationships (especially the intersection of all these) are global society’s fascination de jur; we thirst for a broader palette of stories. With practice, the new generation of storytellers can develop characters just as strong as past-protagonists, yet whose settings are not only more complex and intriguing by virtue of heterogeneity but also having immediacy, relevant to a moment in history where the world is webbed by circuits. I intended to describe an allegorical space where multiple streams come together, as well as feeling sadness for the other blogger who wants to stay upstream in the limited beauty of a single channel, suggesting some are disdainful toward the rapids of confluence because they…

There is an impasse. Because I do not want to cannibalize someone who actually read my post, I recognize my envy: I know the blogger I critique has written extensively, whereas I have only waded again and again into the confluence and allowed it to churn me. That explanation is faux-artistically figurative, misleading: I’m unemployed and broke. I wanted to feel better about myself before I aimed a hose of cold water at my reader– I would rather not play ‘white-privilege whack-a-mole’ without a mallet. Therein lies the ugly truth, eh? How could I swing a gavel when…

And now, for a brief word from out sponsor…

‘BAM! BAM BAM!’ goes a hammer against a table-top. Were you skimming? This could be an excellent place to put your keel in the water: a new stream enters. I thought about killing myself, often. Do not misunderstand: I never had a plan or strong impetus toward suicide; I just entertained those thoughts as my guest. Suicide would join me for dinner, a walk, reading on the futon, perhaps waiting with me for my lover, and in all manner of domestic settings and tasks.
“Isn’t it a shame you don’t own a gun? It would simplify matters were you to need to end your pain, hypothetically,” said a dry, morbid voice over tea.
“I concede that,” I say, sipping, “but I’d hate to give the weapons industry any profit whatsoever, you understand.”
“Yes, indeed, but what if you were to put a note in your hand that said ‘it’s the gun industry’s fault — promote gun-control’. You could make an example of yourself.” (“It’s an idea.”)
While I washed dishes, he’d say “I love the romantic ideal of a long knife to the heart– a pity it would be so painful.”
“Oh! It would be gruesome and I can scarce imagine mustering the gumption,” I shuddered.
“Unless you were to imbibe something quite numbing–” he interjects, “–but not nauseating. Can you think of anything?” Plates clinked together for several beats. “Probably not: a shame that the buildings are not taller in Washington nor that the river stays too warm to cause hypothermia quickly enough nor…”
“–hypothetically… but indeed,” I concede as I towel my hands and reach for a cookie.
“Yes, you might get others to understand that ‘right to die’ has dignity,” said he, then asked, “life is really worth indefinite suffering?”
“Someone else’s life might be,” I’d say, catching his mood, “it’s a pity I can’t sacrifice myself to save a child from slavery or donate my organs for medical research– just as options. I suppose I’ll go on living; things could get better if I’m lucky.”
While playing trumpet, more recently, my morbid voice came calling: “It’s a pity you’re in your friend’s home– if you hadn’t lost your apartment you wouldn’t have to worry about emotionally scarring his family by impaling yourself–naturally, just a hypothetical scenario.”
I looked at my trumpet, played a few notes, and muttered ‘this is not normal for me.’ Entertaining suicidal thoughts is not quintessentially who I am– but playing the trumpet IS. My skills may rise and fall (no forthcoming albums) but playing music is quintessentially ME living into my OWN being, continuing as my SELF. The suicidal thoughts had seemed like part of my fabric, like dye, but they were only deep stains awaiting a superior solvent; my history with music predates their premises. “Intrusive thoughts: you don’t belong. Get thee behind me!”

“‘Sex’,” I say warmly, ringing the rim of a wine-glass with a silver spoon. Skimming, were you? That’s quite fine because another stream joins here, its entrance raising a swirl of eddies where readers can linger. As you all see, the name of this entry is conflux, not confluence. I chose the obscure synonym so I could tailor its connotations to the purposes of this evolving piece; I learned the word while, finally, searching ‘confluence’. I improvised. I dove into this torrent for a sunken branch and emerged with a polished stone. ‘Conflux’ has similarity to ‘influx’ or ‘in-flux’, each bringing their whispered meanings to confluence like the wind rustling leafy branches overhanging a river. ‘The influx brings me into-flux’. New material is discovered and introduced, now that a writing process is allowed to proceed and a dam gate opened; the presence of newness creates the state of change and heightens uncertainty. The perfection I called precocity must weaken and the pain of living becomes sharper. Life is not worth all of this pain; life is worth the pain, pleasure, and presence. Life is actually bigger than both the pain and the temptation to end it by ending my life. Suicide is the ultimate stifling of expression and my inner-musician would not tolerate it.

And this conflux is an imperfect reflection of the idea, of itself, much like a fast-flowing stream provides a poorer reflection yet is a natural, forward vehicle~

Bog Flowers, Nut Armor, and the Paradox of Precocity

Cattail in swamp foregroundSeeds germinated. Burial makes life possible two-thousand years later: bogged-resurrection, the wait that moves life forward. Ending and beginning are impossible as opposites before they have fused together in one moment. Something is dissolving in me: let me set the scene…

My dearest is a botany teacher; I will call her Apricot from now on. She suggested we go to the Kennilworth Aquatic Gardens, here in Washington, DC. Look East of the Anacostia on a map to find them, nowhere near the National Mall nor the affluence of the Northwest quadrant. Tucked near marshes that bear a vague sheen of pollution is a series of submerged beds brimming with exotic plants. We have a quirky, sweet love — nerdy, too. She peers knowingly into the pores and gills of capsized mushrooms. We share a compulsive curiosity for the aboriginal world and the interwoven ribbon of human culture. She relishes books but her PhD is in Plant Pathology. I hungrily read pop-science articles but my BA is in English, my MA in International Education. Accidentally, we studied to be partners: the consummate biologist and the nascent intellectual — the writer to be.

Sacred Lotuses, dozens of themApricot and I prowled from the garden gate to the marsh boardwalks behind, among hundreds of ‘sacred lotuses’. They might have seemed common to me by morning’s end if not for their enormous, pale-green leaves and quinceañera-pink blossoms. Yet as we prepared to leave we noticed an ancient jewel in a murky bathtub. An unburied treasure resides in the concrete basin behind the green-house: lotuses cultivated from seeds that were 2000 years old. The revelation surprised me less than it impressed me but, that morning, I had not fathomed the depths of its significance.

An opening blossom next to a seasoned seed podShe read an autobiography by respected female scientist Hope Jahren, a fellow plant-lover. It is called “Lab Girl” and Apricot regaled me of a part from the middle, one long weekend. I considered the book ‘spoiled’ but more than a month later she insisted I should read it. I am simultaneously nibbling the posthumously published “Letters from the Earth (Mark Twain writing in the voice of Satan), taking regular doses of “Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity”, and big gulps from a book of Thomas Merton excerpts (”Echoing Silence”). Each is thought-provoking but, one long weekend, I started Jahren’s book in hungry need of a story to follow.

Lotus seed-podsWhen I told Apricot excitedly about the third chapter — the one about seeds — it was elementary to her. She is a plant scientist: she enjoyed connecting to the author in the discipline they both love. She knew seeds were alive all along… all along. I cried, of course, because I connected to the stories of seeds! The idea that an embryo was already alive, already waiting, waiting for just one chance to grow, still alive when the muck rises (the decades too), ready to split safety asunder and begin when the conditions are right — it all seemed an epiphany to me. The lotus pods sank into Chinese peat bogs and neither died nor flourished for millennia: they waited. It should not have been surprising yet I was deeply impressed. I thought about armor-clad black walnuts — and the jacket of bitter green material around their nuts, too. Miraculously, the walnut embryo can stay alive and suspend its arboreal ambitions until that thick, pungent ball of impossibility finally wears away. Apricot nodded and smiled over her tea, adding, “it can travel a long way, too.”

A large, glistening dew-drop on a leaf“This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell. …I wonder where it is right now,” Jahren muses. I saw its contemporaries well into their growth, their glorious residency in the concrete basin at the Kennilworth Gardens. “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.”

Giant amazonian lily-padsI told Apricot, “whatever it is I’ve been desiring, I’m going to have to let it go,” in so many words, to favor germinating as myself — primarily a writer. My seed-coat could be made of precocity. As a child I was possessed with not only curiosity and originality but a pernicious precocity. I really thought my place at the front of the parade was assured and I would adapt and excel quickly at each juncture of my vocation. Instead of accepting short-falls as lessons from experiment and exercise, I felt them as holes missing from my self. Precocity’s opioid is the delusion of an instant opus, a redeeming work with no basis in trial. In lieu of excellence I dreamed of significance, a budding desire to play my role in global society. I attempted to cultivate bulbs of justice or else gild my own suffering, trying to hammer the shape of my own significance onto the surface of the pervading Internet. As I scrolled I became both partner and thrall to the addictive tapestries of “new media” and cocooned myself there, with the masses. I could not forge myself faster into something greater (precocious) but I ache to create meaning, still. Still, I am alive inside. The shells of my dissatisfied adolescence are not predictive of my deeper essence; the inner-child and the nascent elder are continuous (weirdly eternal!) and tend to muse rather than accomplish, to complicate as much as resolve — qualities that create existential drag but also eddies of provocative writing. I can accept the long processes of growth and discovery, if my protective coat of precocity dissolves in the promise of generative praxis.

'Impressionist' photo of a lily-pondMillions perish in a season, yet thousands of embryos retain viability, waiting for the right conditions to make one (only one) attempt to grow or perish. The paradox of the seed-coat holds me in suspense. Seeds get kicked to sunnier places, survive being eaten, float from coast to island — or wait on their parent tree until a raging fire melts the seal on their cone. The lotus’ coat entombed them in the bog — intact. Yet a seed might lose viability before its chance: split open on pavement, shat into a sewer, sunken in sediment to be fossilized, or imprisoned in cones on Mackinac Island where brush-fires are quenched by human authorities. So goes, also, my viability as an artist. Just over a year ago, a gardener about sixteen years older than me invited me to the U.S. Botanic Gardens to check-out an enormous corpse flower. To love and be loved mutually is a liberating condition. All of my gushing is distilled to one sentence: my ‘sweet apricot’ is the fire that opens my cone and, after this love, the cone cannot be resealed. Rather than patching the holes in myself, I sense they are necessary for my destiny to unfurl. My pungent, overwrought shell is cracking and the loam enveloping me is warm and wet. This soil is acceptable and my shoots and roots declare that emergence is NOW.

“Yes, we have to learn to write disciplined prose. We have to write poems that are “Poems”. But that is a relatively unprofitable and secondary concern compared with the duty of first writing nonsense. We have to learn the knack of free-association, to let loose what is hidden in our depths, to expand rather than to condense prematurely. Rather than making an intellectual point and then devising a form to express it, we need rather to release the face that is sweating under the mask and let it sweat out in the open for a change, even though nobody else gives it a prize for special beauty or significance.”

-Thomas Merton, “Why Alienation is for Everyone”, 1968
(emphasis mine)

'Apricot' stands on the boardwalk

Love wears a purple rain-jacket and walks with me on misty mornings.

Like all towering trees, I will begin in near insignificance and make sugars in the shadows. The canopy is far away. As Hope Jahren indicates later in her book, some lucky little trees have the benefit of being in symbiosis (with fungi). Someone established is nestled close to me, sharing in the journey upward.

Red Fox & Blue Butterfly

LxXVb5wI ran at a steady pace up Fort Totten Hill. Its summit was raised a level higher by the Civil War era Earth-works of the fort upon that hill. Trees occlude its remains but paths of worn stones persist. My irregular running routine had not greatly affected my ability to climb the weather cracked easement from the street level to where the sun-bathed hillside fades to a shaded gravel road.

A red fox dashed into the undergrowth but not fast enough. My steady speed, I noted, allowed me to have a generous look at this vermilion phantom — this was just my third fox sighting in as many years. Because of this fleet-footed spirit-animal, my first Monday after quitting that job assumed a glow of ordination, an aura somewhere between rusted and rosy. I continued for a quarter mile beyond that point.

As I looped back, I bashed my foot against a tree-trunk. The stroke of clumsiness was unexpected, crest-breaking, and it hurt-like-hell. I limped the thorn-lined path out of the woods. As I crossed the sunny expanse of lawn on the hillside nearest the street, I saw a tiny blue butterfly. I grasped the irony, then: I would not have stopped if I were not already struggling, unable to run. Kneeling, I soaked-in its finest details: the slight purplishness of its blues, the creamy undersides of each wing bearing ‘eye-spots’, bold but minuscule, as if drafted by expert calligraphers.

More than two days later, I could barely walk around the grocery store. The parable is seemingly orthogonal to how I thought the tensions of the universe played. Going quickly, I was able to see the fox, orange-red, and going slowly I was blessed with the butterfly, so so purple-blue. Who am I to say that one beauty is greater? To hustle and to hobble were both divine. The lesson about pace was not that any pace was better but that something different was to be learned at each pace.

Many of us would trade the butterfly, would trade the blues, to keep sprinting. We aspire to follow the torch of the fox’s tail indefinitely. Yet it was not the long-gone fox’s fault I busted my foot on a tree — I could have been more leisurely, more careful. On the other hand, even at a jog, would I stop to see a tiny, blue butterfly? Without its fluttering blues as a lure, would I kneel to see the fine marks on each wing’s underside: the tiny eyes that watch our fox-hunts?

Echinargus isola:

Echinargus isola, Sycamore Canyon, Arizona, USA © Frank Model