Pentagon City Mall: Craziness Dawns!

http://www.amazon.co.uk/LG-DM2350D-Widescreen-1080p-Monitor/dp/B005K71BI8We are still at the damn mall. I am going to stay at the mall until I can get the hell out of it — do you understand me?

Nonfiction reflection is my native genre, my homeland in the world of writing. I started my musings in LiveJournal as a place to collect my teenage thoughts and give them significance. By the time I began “Reverse Exiled”, the impulse to journal was part of my mental machinery. Yet, I never intended for it to be that way. At an early stage, I contemplated leaving my own plot behind. Why I never made the jump is of great import, for me, but probably not of great interest to my audience. What you all need to know is that we are at the fucking mall. Right-the-fuck-now. You can smell pleather at the overpriced belt and hat stand in the middle of the Pentagon City Mall food court. There is actually a stand that sells sports-team themed spatulas but those are hard to smell so it became a belt & hat stand for the sake of your nostrils.

I needed to find a thin place in the universe: a singularly, an anomalous zone where the autobiographical and fictitious dimensions could be close enough to wade from one to the other rather than needing to build a ‘ship’. I never had the rocket-power I needed to reach escape velocity, in Grand Rapids, and jettison from the heavy places I reached (not entirely of my own volition). I wanted an escape: there may be some cold, surreal portal through inter-stellar space hidden in the deep vacuum between galaxies but I turned toward the whirling bulge in the middle and… that is where the singularity is: the black-hole, the rip in space. Not on the whispering shores of Lake Michigan where I long to be but at the damn mall where people rush around the food court, swung to-and-fro by something infinitesimally small and equally massive. I bet it was under that cracked tile next to the Starbucks island — the orbits were most intense in its vicinity.

Making astronomical metaphors is one thing but actually kneading those powerful images into scene takes a higher level of prowess. My Creative Writing classes brought me closer but I was missing a key component: insistence. More than persistence, insistence is the ability to continue producing coarse content with the trust that quality material can be produced. I never gave myself the space, especially emotionally, to do all the bad writing I needed to do in order to produce fiction and poetry — to be a story-teller. I wanted to be a prodigy: accolades on the first attempt.

As I’ll pick-up in later journal entry, I wanted success. I have clung to my technical ability to produce grants, prayers, newsletters, and other defined-products. When I walked into the mall I expected to see a clear picture of rampant materialism that I could deconstruct and critique using experiential lenses. That was the case at first. Then I became uncomfortable: I was losing the mental strength to hold all the stimuli steady — I wanted out but I resisted and started journaling instead. The volatile corners of that world creased and collapsed upon themselves.

Suddenly, I knew how Neil might be feeling. From time to time, over the past few months, I try to think about what Neil is going through right now. Neil spent three months in the West Bank. He’s from the DC-area but he studied civil engineering at a Big-Ten school — imagine trying to make sense of the separation barrier with his background. He is someone who believes that infrastructure should make commerce — and life — better for communities, coming into contact with (as I called it in my New World Outlook article) a ‘titanic millipede chewing through the countryside’. All of that is packed away, though, along with many other emotions. Our minds, Neil’s and mine, are like the neighborhoods and villages we knew, where it took much longer to get from one place to another — from one thought to another, one memory to another — because of physical obstructions, dangerous passages, roads in shambles, and points of unpredictability and/or hassle (check-points).

Having undergone that kind of fragmentation, Neil emerged from a fog in the Pentagon City Mall, just before Christmas. The holiday season was in full tilt and the Starbucks smells like artificial-peppermint-syrup. The mall was built as several white tiers where every floor was a little narrower than the one below it, like a wedding-cake turned inside-out. Neil sweeps his gaze across the spacious atrium, noticing bedazzled teddies in the Victoria’s Secret display window on the second-floor but quickly fixing his eyes on the apple store. From that distance, the panels of animated LED lights looked like fairies — no, they looked like they could be a cybernetic race of lightning-beetles, flying in formation of their own accord to form a reindeer, then an iPod.

hallmark_logo_2515He is supposed to be meeting some friends [what are their names? He used to know their names…] but they aren’t where they said they were. They said they were going to be on ground level, beneath an overhang, next to the window-display at a Hallmark store (is there even a Hallmark there? I guess there is…] one floor higher than subway level. Squeezing through the swarms buying their holiday cards, Neil realized that he was critically late to their meeting point. He knew they would not have waited: the search began. He drifted with the flow of the crowd for a minute.

As he turned to walk away, a television monitor glided from the wall and settled on his shoulder.

“The you take the Neil and just give’m a chop chop chop…”

“Oh Holy Fuck!” he gasped, spinning around. By that time, it was almost back to its perch over the door. That really happened. The television speaker was right in our ears, whispering our names. A fit woman is smiling and explaining how to make a ‘delicious’ salad to restore the body after an exercise routine. Obviously, a pitch for overpriced knives being sold in the home-furnishings store below but Neil was impressed. He knew the Mall would be confusing, like the directory where the label for a store would move when he tried to slide his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. The fact that surreal shit would actually begin to happen, really, was something I had not anticipated either. In my case, the television was only a ventriloquist. It never moved, it made my shirt-collar start talking: “…then add some tomatoes to your kale…” He misheard. Kale, not Neil. “—next on our count-down—” chimes the neighboring monitor, “is someone we have not heart from in a few years—”

“Seems like a couple months ago, to me…”

http://www.bluesci.org/?p=6752Neil makes his way onto the escalator and notices a short lady with long, wavy hair carrying a zebra-striped purse. He knows he has seen her before but, because he cannot think of her name, he cannot say anything. Will not, really. She is already walking briskly from the top of the escalator toward another corridor, sometimes flickering. You know? A person can flicker a little, as their image passes through so much tumult. It must be true because I just ‘remembered’ it and put it here, without even modifying it. It is an idea. The zebra-purse helped, you know. Zebras flicker a little to make it harder for the lions to track them visually. As long as he was searching for friends, he could be searching for anyone or anything. The woman never appeared again but he was already going down that corridor, fascinated: a tourist, a pilgrim in his own city.

* * *

I don’t truly want to stop before I tell you what happened when he went into Nordstrom. The department stores are a fresh dose of ergot. Eventually, he finds two more Hallmark stores but his friends are actually at… well, I’ll tell you in the book if it ever gets written.

I cannot stress enough how relieved I was to freak-out. All of this time, I thought I might feel ridiculous when I visited the mall and learned that it was composed sensibly and populated by well-adjusted folks but I found none of that. Some people were bound to be well-adjusted, of course, but the mall is an actual hot-bed of para-normality. It was both vindicating and freeing because I did not feel as if I needed to critique the mall and add artificial tints to enhance its features — to fictionalize it. The mall was already so close to being fiction that all I needed to do was not allow myself to become grounded. I refused to change my reference points to adjust to that kind of insanity: I allowed the craziness to dawn on me.

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Reverse Exile: Declaration of Intent

The Aukstronaut considers prickly-pear...Today marked my unceremonious social-media announcement to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing (and/or Poetics) and to do “whatever it takes” to get into a program. I would be lying if I said this was a pivotal turning point of any kind. No movement in my actual existence, the life I have lived for twenty-seven years and dragged to three continents, was heavy or momentous enough to crack walls that are psychological. Seeing a therapist every week and being forced to remember and re-experience my past is creating more of the energy and direction needed to reverse my stray trajectory. Instead of a pivot, I feel like I am paddling across a lake, turning the boat in small increments.

Looking at old blog entries is another way I am prying open lock-boxes in my mind and getting past feeling ‘scattered’. I wish I had more space and time to explain the feelings of disjointedness that accompany my uncertainty. Instead of reaching the point of certainty through great accomplishments or signs of “destiny” I had to abandon the dreams of being ‘significant’ (via activism or otherwise) and start asking myself which field(s) I was most suited to explore deeply. I wanted a big plot-twist, like becoming a conflict mediator or an interfaith peace-builder, but even my plotting is emblematic of my desire to be a writer. My favorite professor, and one-time Writing Center supervisor, commented that I kept “circling back” to the idea of an MFA and that it was “in [my blood”. If I still felt the need to be superlative — you know, to be the best at everything — I might re-enter the cycle of hope and self-abuse. A few faithful friends remain in my corner: telling me I can do whatever I set my mind to and gently rebuking my self-deprecations.

Another writing center colleague has made sharper rebukes, such “quit saying you can’t” and “stop judging … you could be writing something to be edited later” and “no one said it was easy; that’s what makes it worth it.” Childish as it is, I respond better to the tarter variety of criticism because it impresses me as more genuinely concerned, not a platitude given by a well-intentioned acquaintances but the admonishment of a committed friend. Naturally, that’s trash: the others are no less sincere. Still, the bitterness of one spice often brings the others into relief — a more shrill voice of love and encouragement is really helpful. I’ve never been so touched by someone accusing me of bitching at myself too much. I felt like I was being defended from my harshest critic (myself). Simultaneously, I feel a nice sting of shame for being self-absorbed, even when I am tearing myself down.

Maria's (Mattson) Adams' photograph.

Maria’s (Mattson) Adams’ photograph.

As went my music, so must my writing go. There was a time, when I was twenty-four, when I grappled with the reality that I would never, ever play professionally but that I could still develop my musicality in small ways that made life richer. The catch was that I could not berate myself for having a bad day anymore — I had to reward myself for picking-up a horn/bass and practicing. My relationship with these ideas are changing over time in order to embrace practice as an act of creativity rather than preparation for an event to come later. In my writing, that means abandoning a myth I stitched together at fifteen or sixteen. In those days, I believed that I needed to make every piece of fiction or poetry count toward my final goal or else I would not be able to distinguish myself from other aspiring authors. Now I see that all I did was make creative writing into a game of higher stakes than my non-fiction practice — something I did automatically. It was one psyche-out after another, unless there was external pressure. As I sheltered my anemic creative-writing practice, I robbed myself of precious opportunities to feel some pressure from my peers. Maybe I was embarrassed or not sure if I would not rather do something else with my life, knowing the difficulty of the road ahead. The only thing which has changed is that I now believe that I can lead a happy life with many difficulties whereas, before, I always believed that difficulties needed to be overcome before happiness possible. If I’ve fallen out of love with end-outcomes, I can fall in-love with the process. As Mercer Ellington said of his father (the Duke, himself), “his favorite piece was always whichever piece he was working on at the time — never something already finished…” Challenge is always with us.

And this ain’t the best written post — but ya’all should have heard me honk’n the first day I decided to start playing trumpet again. Wow — but now my sound is smoother than it’s ever been (for what that’s worth…)

The nastiest nay-saying ‘voice’ in my head is the one that reminds me of how much ‘practice’ I missed by procrastinating my decision to commit fully to the idea, noting what seems to be diminishing returns. An accompanying voice is one that tries to justify & otherwise redeem all of the other ‘practices’ I use to procrastinate. I am tempted to say “bad habits” but I want to dissolve that paradigm. It’s a problem of proportions, strictly, not necessarily of choices. Getting past these two diametrically opposed but mutually reinforcing voices is a matter of practice.

Palestinian 'X'

A redesign in solidarity with Palestine, with apologies to Capcom.

When I say that I intend to work on my MFA, it’s almost an admission that I am going to quit trying to work on myself all the time. I can shape myself concurrently. Whether I make applications this winter or next winter, I am stating for the record that I am going to privilege

my aspirations over my uncertainties. Yet, I can say that all I want and never have these paragraphs become ‘performative’ — like a promise or an oath. What I really need to do is be vulnerable to the process of writing creatively, hoping everything and expecting nothing but more trouble and missteps.

Let’s do it. I have themes I want to explore, characters to develop, subjects to teach, and ideas to air. Activism will always be with me, shaping the ways I shape the world — and music, too, keeping me from imploding. Let’s do it.

The Reluctant Fictionalist (& The Friend on the Pier)

I wondered when I would write this. I am writing to say I am writing again, though I was afraid to say so in so many words because it means I cannot retreat any more. Growing-up, I day-dreamed about being an author but I never sat down with a notebook and started sketching most of those story ideas (really, any). By the time I had a computer, it was just in time to make the internet my drug –as much as it has also been a tool. My first blog was more like writing therapy than a discipline and my second was more like a soap-box than a story-book. Reverse Exiled was my attempt to drift closer to the goal of writing narratives.

I have fiction in my background: two courses and a senior thesis made from three sections of an unwritten book. Three good sections I have not truly visited since college. I wrote several short stories that I am not ashamed to share, and some poetry as well. The past three years I have mulled over what really bars me from writing, and what kept me stalling the process even in my teenage years. Followers will be puzzled: I write non-fiction. I know I can do it – but I don’t want to be limited by it. It also makes me nervous to tell stories others have been witness to, though the responses to my wedding posts have been humblingly positive. I could never leave blogging, entirely, after that!

Tonight was going to be a re-run. Unable to focus on Arabic, I found myself on the couch reading hand-written journal entries from last fall and sipping tea with a sense of overwhelming dread. I psyche myself out. There are too many possibilities or else I never feel like the language is just right. Perhaps I cannot bear to commit myself so much to something that would dead-end or, worse, flow nicely and then be rejected (not that I know anything about that process). No one has ever, in my life, told me I could not write well… except me. Even my poetry professor, at her harshest moment, was saying “you CAN do better.”

I finally posed the critical question: why does the thought of doing what I want to do most cause me emotional pain? Immediately, I thought of one of my dearest friends who studies psychology. I had the urge to find her and vent, again. Instead, I wondered what it would be like to write from the perspective of someone like her encountering someone like me. Though it’s not much, I now have a stub – not even a complete scene—of a character like her going to visit a character like me. Already, though, I can tell they will not be precisely like us ~ that’s good. Even if this stub goes nowhere, I am proud that I opened the word-processor and wrote something instead of just crawling into bed and saying ‘tomorrow’. Tomorrow has never quite come. Today will have to do (tomorrow).

I see my narrator at first coming to my ‘subject’ character our of a sense of obligation, having tried to warn him that moving to the middle-East was a bad idea (this is nothing like my friend and I, by the way – she drove me to the airport and told me I was brave). She will wonder, aloud, at some point why he would ‘follow some woman’ into what she could only imagine as a dangerous place and be even more baffled that he would stay for months after his romance failed. He will show her that he has seen a different kind of love and offer many deep insights but, also, confusing emotions.

 

I know something about this stuff. Interestingly, the themes I picked for my thesis is close to the theme I am living right now and the theme I want to actualize in my ‘day-job’, studying arts-based approaches to conflict resolution and community building. Getting past barriers. I confess, I know only the smallest amount about the field in general but — but I digress… getting past barriers. If I were in the publishing industry, my barriers would be completely useless to me. Now, I have the chance to know what it is like to overcome a barrier to creativity.

 

Ironically, I balked at fiction that was too autobiographical for fear it would just turn into masked non-fiction. However, even as I journal I find myself almost saying things that might have happened. As I started to write from this narrator’s mind, I found that she was not entirely similar or dissimilar to my friend. I could put some of myself into her, or some part of someone else. I know I can do these things, I just do not have the habit yet. For all these months I have been trying to find the specific obstacle I could remove that would make everything ‘click’.

 

It’s the desire for a ‘click’. That’s not writing. I know from my non-fiction, it can take a long time to write something when you know what happened, let alone when you are DECIDING what happened. In the mean time, I am glad I dumped a page of even terrible writing because I know it must be part of my own healing process. It also pays to keep telling myself “I can write fiction; I am not strictly hardwired as a reporter – I can train my imagination again…”

–but I could always use some prayers. I am ever a flawed but spiritual man – I need the best help I can get. It is a long journey ahead and I often have an easier time seeing many small obstacles than the grand reasons to push past them.
If you would humor me… here are my scraps:

 

                Scott was laying chest-down on his step-father’s pier, left arm draped into the water. On mostly cloudy days, the surface of the small lake looked black and almost smooth, as if his arm were petrified in volcanic-glass. I hesitated on the back porch, wondering if my friend would move and if he were asleep. That would give me an excuse not to disturb him; I felt awkward already. Adjusting my glasses on the bridge of my nose, I tried to glean if his eyes were open but his own glasses made it hard to tell. The fogged lenses looked like plastic-framed cataracts and gave him a mug like a fresh, astute corpse. Some seaweed was stuck to his bare arm where the checkered sleeves of his shirt would have been if he had not unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled them up to his shoulders. April is not an appealing time to sun oneself on a pier, much less be the anti-social flounder who lays there in khakis and a wool vest when the sun is little more than an incandescent stain. The weather  with an indecisive timbre, sending chilly gusts that threatened rain but instead wore faded, powdery blue patches in the overcast sky.

                I hesitated on the back porch for a long time, throwing a glance toward the house from time to time to see if his mother was watching. She put in me in an awkward position. When I arrived, I thought that Scott had asked her to call me and invite me to visit. Months had passed since our last contact but, apparently, Scott’s mom made an executive decision on his behalf. On the telephone she said ‘Scott has missed you so much while he was gone doing, you know, things over seas,’ but when I arrived at the door and asked for him, his step-father Steve smiled politely and gave her a questioning look. “Clara, dear. Scott’s friend from High School. The nice one who became a psychologist.”
                “Does he think she’s nice, too?” said Steve, chuckling. Or, more to the point, does Scott’s mother know that a bachelor’s degree does make me a psychologist. In the course of asking them where he was, it became apparent that he did not actually know I was coming nor was there any reason to believe he had requested a visit. Honestly,  we drifted apart after high school. I think I was the first one to tell him that following a woman into a conflict zone was not the way to build peace or change the world or whatever rhetoric he built around it. I think I was not the last either but the silence that followed in our friendship was telling.

                “Do you want me to get him for you?” said Steve, helpfully.

                “No, thank you, no. I can do it –“
                “Just kick him; he could use a kick in the ribs.”

                “Oh.” Not knowing Steve I just said, “okay.”

                “I don’t mean literal. I meant like a metaphor or something. Something like that .” He was suddenly uncomfortable. “Why don’t I get him for you, quick? SCOTTY!”

                “Oh. Thank you? I was going to—“

                “Look, he’s awake now!”

                “—poke him with my toe.”

               

* * *

               

The grass wet my feet as I

with powdery blue sky lights opening and closing slowly.

                “I wish that it would snow, that a fluffy snow would come down. I don’t mean little ice-pellets but I mean wispy snow like ashes. Do you know what I mean?”
                “Scott, I know what you mean but, well, I don’t really understand why.”

                “What?”
                “Why you want it to snow in April. Did you miss playing in the snow while you were in the middle East?”

                “Sometimes.”

                “It will snow again.”

                “I just wanted it to snow right now.”

                “Okay. I was just saying that it is going to snow eventually.”

                “I know. I know it’s going to snow eventually. I was just saying I wanted it to snow right now.”

                “You just said that.”

                “Well, I wanted you to understand more clearly.”

                “I did actually understand; you would like snow right now but it is April. I am telling you that you can expect snow around the end of October.”         
                “That’s technically correct.”

                “That’s absolutely correct, Scott. Why do you need to have such a grouchy tone?”

                “Forget it. Fine. I hope it rains. There, now I am realistic again.”

                “I hope you go inside before it rains. Your butt looks a little wet – did it rain on you earlier?”

                “I sat on the moss by the shore.”

                “Okay. I guess that moss was wet?”
                “Yes.”
                “Yes. Alright. Now your butt is wet…”

* * *

 

Late April is not the time that social people prefer to sun themselves on the pier, so Scott

 

That moment, watching him lay motionless, had a washed-out sense of doom

 

“it was not a conflict zone when I arrived” [<Syria? That would require research… ]

“what do you mean?”