Reverse Exiled: Bill the Cowboy & Beyond

The Aukstronaut considers prickly-pear...It is 4 AM. This night is a metaphor. Sometime around 8 pm I felt tired and decided I would take an evening nap and awake at midnight to begin my career as a writer. What I never mention to myself is that this has happened before: I sleep until midnight and then reset the alarm for 2:30, then for 3:30 — eventually for 6:45 (NOCTURNAL WRITER WAITS UNTIL DAYLIGHT?!). It is 4 AM, the night is not yet gone, and I am contemplating a cowboy named ‘Bill’. Bill was the main character of my submission to young authors’ day in 3rd grade and my first protagonist other than myself. Bill leaves the ranch to visit Africa, India, Australia and Southeast Asia. Even if rife with stereotypes plucked from television, “Bill the Cowboy Travels the World” set the stage for my vocational crisis. Bill circumnavigates the planet but decides to return to the work he began — a ranch-hand can do anything he/she wants but the ranch is still home. At the end of his journey, Bill returns to the ranch to share his stories. I drifted from a writing-life, without great success, and now I am returning — for better or worse. If nothing else, I need to finish this (THIS) journal entry (THIS ONE).

I want to wrestle this octopus; I described the feeling as “The Beige Ninja” when I was in college: something lethal (TERMINAL), lurking in our unremarkable surroundings. Not even a ninja can match an octopus for elastic strength and baffling stealth, nor its many arms. Its epoxy tentacles dragged the greater part of me into the abyss when I jammed it into the recesses of my psyche. The apartment on 1336 North Capitol Street was terrifyingly appropriate for my mental state after coming through so many consecutive challenges — newly refurbished, liberally cluttered, and noxiously cramped. It just dawned on me, as the faintest light percolates through the mini-blinds of my new apartment, that this is the largest space I have ever furnished for myself. I escaped alive (FREEDOM!).

As my oldest living dream, the authorial impulse is entangled with more shame, self-thwarting, and peculiar fits of denial than any of my other vocational affairs. I spent the greater part of childhood pacing around our yard imagining things (MOSTLY DINOSAURS), slowly accepting I could not will myself to become a cartoon character. At twelve, I decided I was too heart-broken from a girl to begin my novel about a cyborg pre-teen — he struggles to comprehend falling in love, despite the large processor mounted on his skull. At sixteen, my dog

walked me in endless circles through the woods while I imagined characters like I saw in action cartoons, eating irradiated fruit and struggling with new-found powers (THEM; I ONLY WISHED I HAD POWERS). I dreaded the moment anyone would see me pecking on the family computer and ask me about my ideas. Ridicule would have destroyed me so I simply imagined. At university, I discovered the Internet on my laptop… and blogging via LiveJournal. I wrote long pieces of nonfiction (LIKE THIS ONE), became a university writing consultant, enrolled in creative writing courses, and started my first novel as a senior thesis. I got credit for that project… and there it lies, petrified. I practice a concoction of procrastination and avoidance, with promises to salvage lost progress. My subscription to writers’ digest lapsed before I read a single issue. I threw them away, too; those issues of Writers’ Digest are like e-mails sitting in rarely opened files or the myriad of webpages ‘bookmarked’ because I was “too tired to focus properly on this right now,” — then deleted quietly at a later date: forgotten.

Palestinian 'X'My innate creativity dessicated in post-university life. I never wanted to end my life but I would lunge for a ‘reset’, a ‘do-over’. Understand: the hunger for significance predated even my desire to be an author: I led the class academically and trailed socially. Sometime after “Bill the Cowboy Travels the Globe” I became fixated with being the best. Doubts floated to the surface and left a ring of scum around my professional life that I could never quite scrub away, even with some modest accolades from writing professors and talented friends. I fell behind my own internal clock, that precocious force which drove me to be “advanced” or “a prodigy”. I ran myself into a psychological debt with myself — one that I could not repay in the wake of family tragedies, much less in the Levant.

The feelings of sadness surface like sweat — I am learning to notice and describe the messages my body is trying to convey. Imagine a briny acid forcing its way through the pores, as if secreting lemon-pulp, and a dull burning sensation like habaneros on the lips. Until last week, I thought it was enough to say I felt depressed; I invented physical reasons to feel as if I were being pickled like last Autumn’s olives rather than make the connection to unmet expectations. That ‘pickling feeling’ is unassigned regret. It is the bodily manifestation of an inkling that the past decade could and should have happened differently. As aging professionals, we lament the loss of our most precious aspirations — to be an ecologist or a jazz musician, perhaps start a family (DO NOT UNPACK THAT BAGGAGE). My relationship failures represent the loss of my most humble aspirations: (I SAID ‘DO NOT UNPACK’ IT) — okay, fine. The one aspiration that will not expire is the very first aspiration, the one that began at age eight — to be an author of books. I deliberated on the possible irony of that for twenty minutes but this reality festers and itches so much because it does not defy anyone’s expectations for me — including mine. I know what it takes and I have not done it for fear of failure.

I was the child for whom things came easily or else they were not worth doing; to dedicate myself to something at which I might never be the best was frightening. Looking at an issue of Writer’s Digest, I knew there were so many things I did not know about the craft and so many reasons that the publishing industry might never notice me. I hate a potential waste. I constructed a reality where I was supposed to pursue another vocation but ‘fell back’ on technical writing or where my mind needed to be fertilized with painful or exotic real experiences before, spontaneously, I would emerge from my chrysalis (MADE OF CALLOUSES) as a virtuoso and never have a manuscript rejected. Something supernatural — an epiphany or miracle — would emerge and be my salvation.

Never seen a pale-face in a kefia? Get used to it.

Never seen a pale-face in a kefia? Get used to it.

I wrought a work of ingrown fictionalization, a powerful character that overwhelmed all self-doubt without having to be written. He is me — activist me. I am not quite sure from where I draw the energy to write, which might explain why this obstacle is so hard to overcome, but ‘Daniel Xavier’ (LEGIT ALIAS, BABY) uses outrage to fuel his endeavors, and the more he endeavors the more he finds to be outraged about, so that I became engrossed in a figurative fire-nado of social justice indulgences. I welded him into a social justice machine in my imagination, though in every day life I was preparing grants and reports (WRITING), not wrapping a kefia over my face and defying Israeli oppression. Yet the activist in me is not just an escape, though because what is constructed is still real. When I opened a Writers’ Digest e-newsletter last week (BEFORE THEY STARTED TRYING TO SELL THINGS) I gleaned a piece of advice that almost scared me back into denial. “Most successful writers don’t score until their fifth manuscript…” Not counting those who never find their ‘muse’, authors average four failed book pitches.

“Something still needs to happen,” said the fool in me, “and then…”

“It’s too late,” said the octopus, “you’ve already had ideas but you didn’t—”

“THIS IS DANIEL XAVIER: YOU NEED TO FAIL FOUR TIMES, THEN COME SEE ME.”

Octopus says, “That’s ridiculous — let’s check Facebo—”

“BE SILENT — QUICK JD: IF YOU HAD TO PICK ONE STORY IDEA TO FAIL WITH, WHAT WOULD IT BE?”

“He doesn’t actually know—” (HOW IS AN OCTOPUS TALKING?)

“I actually do — I know the right story to learn with…”

“MAY IT BE SO; BETTER TEN YEARS AGO THAN NOW BUT BETTER NOW THAN TEN YEARS HENCE!”

I have to be honest: the octopus is still with me, still affecting me. My first night working on character development with Scrivener went well; the second night I caved and searched for thrift stores online. The third night, I started developing ‘Jem’: an antagonist who will become my hero because the protagonist of the novel needs to be challenged (THEY ARE BOTH PART OF ME). Sunday night, I did nothing more than pick backgrounds for the Tumblr I want to begin. It will be called “Interpolar Ice Field”, a pun on interpolations and the ‘principle of the iceberg’. My new handle is ‘Aukstronaut’ — invoking the extinct arctic bird, the sounds of awkwardness, and voyages into yet unexplored frontiers. This morning, I will finish this definitive piece of ‘Reverse Exiled’, though I have not fully defined what it means to be “reverse exiled”. At last, I might raise more questions than I answer. This week may keep me too busy to write.

Tray of Arabic coffee *drool*

Or maybe my writing will keep me too busy for this week; no one knows the future but I do know that Hope is a more powerful force than even Faith because an audacious Hope is a more redeeming Faith than just Believing in something unseen; that Hope moves us to action. Only my fascination with Creative Hope could draw me away from the writing life but I believe such a Hope is simultaneously my reason for writing, the one thing that will keep me writing, and a main thread in the pieces I will write. I can work with Muslims, Jews, and whoever may share my Hope but I struggle to stay engaged with resigned Christians. I need to get past this pet-peeve because they will be my target audience: when everyone has Hope (THAT HOPE), they can join together to beat Fear and help ‘reverse exile’ us all.

 

Correction: it is now 9 AM on August 27th of 2013 and I am a writer.

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[A post to “Sibling Share”, copied & pasted]

The Aukstronaut considers prickly-pear...Since I am having trouble opening-up, let alone writing eloquently, I decided to complain to my sister (the almost-librarian):

There isn’t much doubt that I have been fretful about my career since I was fifteen or sixteen, back when I could not decide if I wanted to be a biologist or a musician. Many people do not know this but it was actually John T. Madden, the director of the athletic bands at MSU, who told me in an audition that my application was well-written and that he would rather see me get any degree at MSU (especially an English degree) than have to go to a lesser institution. That was a confusing day, Molly…

I meant to blog about these thoughts last week. Most of last Wednesday, I was feeling depressed and shameful after my visit to the therapist. Somehow, that all came out in my music (I still practice every day that I can) and started to fill my head with the idea I could have ‘made it’ if I had just practiced with the right attitude for enough hours of the day instead of, you know… making-out with my girlfriend like a teenager. I wonder if it will always be the same way with my writing: if I would have dedicated myself with the right attitude for enough hours a day, I could have at least developed a manuscript. As of right now, I have a messy constellation of poems, blog-entries, and old short stories. Yet, if I can have a good day playing the trumpet then it stands to reason I could have a good writing day — I just reached a point with trumpet where I recognized I loved it whether I was ever going to be great at it or not.

–and I still love Jazz more than most other things in life–

Reading advice from ‘successful’ writers online gives me mixed feelings — part of my self-thwarting is to avoid them entirely. John Green (who I would like to read) was probably the most helpful ~ he just admitted that he didn’t do it all on his own but also, yes, that he did work late into the night on his first book and make connections in the publishing industry. A friend forwarded me an article by another writer (whom I had never known before) and I read his list of 33 unusual tips. When I researched further, I found out that he had worked for years and years, suffered through a divorce and lost fortunes, and read religiously. After all that, I saw he had produced books on self-help and a blog of personal essays that were not that much better than mine (in other words, I have no desire to read him). So… John Green must be right: work hard, have friends who help, get lucky… but still read extensively!

In my youth I worried about reading the ‘right’ things and bought several books because I thought a well-rounded person needed to read them. I never made it through A Tale of Two Cities — and never plan to. The Canterbury Tales are in my book tub, along with several other books I have no interest in reading. I wasted so much time convincing myself I wanted to read this kind of literature when I know very well the kind of literature I want to read — experimental and post-colonial. I have Jorge Luis Borges by my bed; he’s my standby. I would really like to read whats-his-name that wrote The Kite Runner and such. World literature is what I prefer, not the English classics. There is almost nothing like that in my book tub right now. This time, I’m not going to try convincing myself that I want to read anything there…

That leads me to my conclusion: I want to go ahead and study post-colonial thought through literature. I don’t quite know how or if it will lead to great success in my life but I feel that, having lived with neocolonialism in real life through my experiences in Bethlehem, that is probably the best starting place for me as a would-be author and possible professor. Do you think I could be a teacher? Do you think I could direct a writing center? Wouldn’t it be funny if we both became WC grad-consultants (or tutors, excuse me) at the same time? Maybe before you finish, I’ll be back in school…

The main reason I want to is simply because I want to be immersed in that kind of literature without losing touch with history and current events completely. At the same time, this would mean giving-up on conflict resolution as a main career choice. Somehow, I might be able to keep incorporating activism, development, and peace studies into my work but my heart was leaning away from that so I could get back to being a word-nerd.

–which is not to say that I stopped being a music nerd or a science nerd. You know very well that I watch as much Sci-Show as I can stand. I also don’t know what I would do without music in my life, even though it competes for time with other things. I’m wondering right now…

…what I have to sacrifice in my life to finally make a commitment to someTHING instead of someONE.

Moonrise Over the Jordan

Moon Phases

Something happened a week ago, a moment that happens as if it were imagined and is remembered as if it’s always happening but fading away.  We left the by-pass road that runs between The Scent and The Holy –Jericho and Jerusalem—and rose upon the backs of naked, blushing hills. We stopped at a hillock marked with a cross, climbed and gazed down at the monastery swaddled in the darkening canyon walls below.  I wished I had wings to visit that secret place, set-apart not just because of what it is but because of the way it sleeps in the land. I would try to describe it more but…

The moon, huge and orpiment, peaked from behind the mountains across the Jordan Valley. It was perfectly round, though not so perfectly uniform, with light shadows that make it look like an incandescent cookie climbing, floating from the streets of Amman, Jordan. Only a short drive from the barbed-wire of the conflict-leeched West Bank is the East Bank Kingdom: a glittery carpet of little villages, coffee-stands, and Bedouin lanterns that unravels from a distant cleft, a widening stream of lights running into the river.  I fathomed from where the moon had just come, a place where I lived in exile. I used to eat chicken at the Iraqi restaurant while the sun sank below the humps of seven Jebels—neighborhoods filled with stairs leading to many secret-doors…I recalled stairs in places further East, too… the moon nudging aside islands in the South China sea…

 

Who am I, now?

 

My blog has gone noticeably quieter as I sort through what I call the ‘new impetus’. This new sources of energy and direction is also something happening now, in my imagination, and yet rooted somewhere deep in the past. I watch the moon many times as it rises from the shepherds fields in Beit Sahour, or Wadi Nahr beyond, but there was one first time, when I realized a new period of my internal life had started. It recalled a pivotal moonrise at the beginning of my college phase, when it cast a bleach-white beam across breakers on the West-shore of Lake Michigan. I questioned God’s existence that night, then found an inkling of Her in the sparks of a fire and the hugs of friends: sparse flashes of illumination but a constant warmth. Yet, in Bethlehem it is not God’s nature in question. It is my own.

I always have wanted to be an author. In the intervening years between kindergarten and graduate school, my preliminary education let us say, I managed to become some kind of writer. I think all the time about how I would blog about the uncanny or ironic or essential or warm or etc moments in my own life. What about fiction? Poetry? I talked to the mission shrink psychologist about it and she suggested that I just needed to take the last step. Nothing makes me so hopelessly, so frantically, yet so subtly angry as having someone tell me that I can be an author because I have spent so many days thinking I should be one but so few acting as one. Instead, I have been a reporter-activist. The shrink expert therapist showed a little frustration with me,
“People often thwart themselves when they are closest to their goal!”

“I know! I know! It is because we don’t have a heuristic for succeeding anymore; I lived a narrative of failure and my brain cannot take it—look at my bad examples! Look the self-thwarting itself…“
“Just take the last step…”
“One step? Just one step? What makes you think this is the last step? I picture thousands of steps…”

 

When I finished shouting at her, I realized she was not ‘shrunken’ about this: it is time. As an understudy to the rising moon, the steaming coffee, the ex-girlfriend who leaves with vague explanations and gives an awkward, last hug—as a reporter, I have the capacity to turn my eyes outward. I can throw my social media habit and my other compulsions on the sun as it leaves for the night. My stages have finally become a cohesive era—an era passed. Where I am has more in common with my future than my past. None of this is happening without my conscious participation but I could not purely will it, either.

Even as I approach eight-hundred words, I am still unable to encapsulate it. My central office frustrated me with domestic placement questionnaire of ten engaging questions, for which they demanded 150 word answers. In a moody-fit, I told them to ask six questions and allow 250. I know, though, that my colleagues do not feel this way: I am speaking from the pit in my stomach.

Almost a month ago – a moonth ago—the Earth passed through a meteor field. At first I did not recognize the shifting constellation, draped next to the moon. I can thank my grandfather’s pilot-vision that I could see it at all. The meteors were colliding with the halo of atmosphere around the moon: sprays of wishes.

 

And when one pierced the sky above my head, I did make a wish.