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.


Smashed Pear (entry fragment)

He left when he heard I was graduating. I wanted to follow him into the hallway and plead that I could drop my capstone class and hang around for another year but too many pieces of me were invested in matriculating. I wished him a good day and listened to the door shut behind him. A voice from the front of my brain, sitting on the tip of some pessimistic wrinkle, volunteered that he wanted eighteen months to get me into shape. Yet somewhere deeper inside the skull, buried between my hemispheres, I knew that he thought I was ready to play. Another musician — the director of jazz-bands — had affirmed that I was worthy of joining. But it all happened a year too late.

In my chest I felt something like a smashed pear. My heart felt cold, bathed in a cool ooze as if it had been dropped on the floor of that practice room. Everything seemed perfectly normal in the wake of his leaving, as if my life were wrapped in a plastic bag. A layer remained between me and the possibility of being recognized and developed as a jazz musician but the impact, the thrust of falling, could not be stopped. I wanted to lay on the floor, smashed. My heart was still beating but its skin was broken and it dripped cool sweetness into my chest, pumping it out into my extremities. I put my instrument to my mouth as if I were pressing it to the abrasion on my bruised heart, sealing the wound with a quick lip of my lips and the long buzzing kiss against cold metal. I played something familiar — “Love Gets Old” — but much bluer, with some new twists. The music and the motif met: a real musician with real blues.

The Meaning of Life & Suicide in a Bathtub

Though it contains true facts, this is a piece of magical realism. Read it in its entirety before becoming alarmed…

I considered the option of suicide in a bathtub, four years ago. I dreamed of luxurious, hot, morbid release as I read the warning label on a bottle of drain-cleaner in my Grand Rapids, MI apartment. I wondered how it would feel, not just to withstand such eviscerating nausea but to hold the poison down intentionally: to fight consciously for death. Dying worried me less than being found: a naked body of thwarted potential.

A year later, I laid upon a legless couch in the exquisite cool of a cave-basement in the same bedrock where Jesus was born. I might have died beneath a bulldozer, in 2012, if it would have stopped Israeli settlers from taking more Palestinian land. Even martyrdom offers no resolution: Rachel Corrie’s spilled blood is still crying for justice. No fast solutions exist. Instead, I re-discovered the clarion sound of my Self returning, in echos, from the back of the caverns just as, a year before, it skimmed-away on the surface of the Grand River.

Suicide is ripe in me. My melancholy seemed like a tangle of cords, for almost a decade, as if someday I would loosen each frayed end and unbind its strained knot. It seems to me like a mass of chords, now. There is nothing to envision nor to gently (even forcefully) tease apart. The past will not be manipulated. All pain is sound, all wounds echo. The sources of distress drift further and closer, into the foreground but also behind walls —or beneath darkened waters— louder and softer, varying in pitch, and changing in timbre as the reverberating waves collide. The time for Silence is ripe.

My housemate speaks in non-echos: “Do you get morose when you don’t have enough to do?”

“Oh, maybe,” I replied. His intercession struck me, contrastingly, as intrusive and reassuring. “My schoolwork kept me engaged for nine months.”

“You mean distracted?” he said. He paced first to the sink and then the stove, wearing no shirt. “Life doesn’t have meaning anyway; you know that, right?” he added, casually.

IMG_4782“There is no one, central them,” I acquiesced. He agreed and continued spewing nihilism as he retrieved mismatching bowls from the dishwasher, still shirtless. He has a broad, muscular chest: smooth and vacant like his thoughts about Life. I have less white-space to give; the tattoo-text above my left nipple reads “…to seek Justice and resist evil”, as if to answer the question ‘what is the meaning of Life?’ I never told anyone I was looking for Life’s meaning. His vacant regard for the question of Life was his version of mercy, intended to free me from the crux of a great dilemma by denying the crux.

“Life is like Silence,” I continued. I tend to find reasons to continue. “Silence has no particular meaning but it is valid as what it is.”

He said nothing as he shut the cupboard door.

Life is a medium, not a piece of work; Life is the substrate of Meaning, like a canvas for paint or Silence for Music,” I raved to myself. He receded to his room upstairs, which could be a broom-closet or the surface of Mars — I don’t know. I knew I possessed a central nugget of wisdom but I was unclear how to smelt it into praxis. Usually, I write a lengthy piece of reflection and post it to a blog called “Reverse Exiled”:

…many of us searched as if there must be a ‘best’ technique for imbuing Life’s fibers with somethingness, a ‘right’ image to impress upon it. Maybe there is a ‘perfect’ note that echos un-harried by Doppler effects, forever harmonious in Life’s chambers. That elusive ‘Theory of Life’ could unify every strand of meaning but, possibly, Life embodies the precise reciprocal of that idea. Necessarily, it is never ‘best’, ‘right’, or ‘perfect’ because that would spoil the emptiness that enables Life to hold Meaning. Oneness would collapse into nothingness but the essence of absolute-nothing clears space for EVERYTHING. Life is desirable as a container. Finally, the Holy un-Grail of reflective writers is in my possession —a dis-unified theory of life!— and I have a really fresh metaphor to convey that thought, via silence and music.*maniacal laughter fading into pathetic sobs*

I wanted “crux”: a kernel of superlative meaning to redeem every errant ‘stroke’ and ‘note’. “The meaning of life is that there is no meaning!” is not redeeming, even if it is liberating. Some meanings are dissatisfying, others seem too large for my corner of the canvass or take on unexpected dimensions that I struggle to render. I wished for an existential “konami code” that granted me mastery. Instead, I decided that I needed to yank the cartridge: time to die.

In childhood I made Life ‘mean’ as I pleased. Dinosaurs could plot regional domination, fall in love, and meet my sister’s pony-dolls in complex, first-contact narratives. Yet the possibility of proficiency in some field lured me into more ‘adult’ projections of Meaning: of Resolution, not merely Imagination.

Death pours a steadfast, concrete column through history, something with definite heft. Death visits each body once, but surely, while the fabric of Life continues for all of Earth but many of its threads fail. For the singular one, Death offers resolution: it fails to dissolve reasons to live but it renders them optional. To complete a suicide is an act of agency. I had several long reveries about living on an Earth left entirely to me, with no one to stop me from committing suicide. No one would love me or my art but nobody could stop me from looting, planting, and building as I pleased: 100% autonomy. Meaning would live and die with me… for the love of meaning, I would live for as long as my body lasted. For the love of meaning, I decided to die on my own terms before I watched my revelation about Life languish on the Internet like numerous other posts.

I fatigued from negotiating Life with other people, though at first I flirted with Mutuality to find Resolution. I filled the vacant portions of my soul with groups’ or couples’ versions of myself and invited others to affirm me as an amalgamate. I wanted to be cherished so badly, I allowed meanings to be imposed upon myself but no one wants to shape me at the expense of being so shaped. What might I mean, alone, when I stop wanting people to co-create with me?

The last thing I did was clean my trumpet and cornet to honor the meaning in Life. I ordered a new “snake” (cleaning-brush) for the occassion. An advertisement promised a flexible, plastic whip tipped with a fuzzy “weasel” to reach nooks of the instrument left untouched by metal-coil brushes. For the first time ever, I threaded a brush completely through my bell-pipe and into the middle cylinder of each instrument. “A sign: I finally swept the unreachable.” To my dismay, the “weasel” still could not go completely through the curliest part of my cornet. “A sign: some questions are never answered. It is definitely time to die.” I had a grand time admiring and playing with my new brush; I imagined a flummoxed coroner finding this giant, fuzzy caterpillar tucked neatly into the travel-kit where I keep extra trumpet supplies.

Meticulously, I restored my instruments to peak shape and arranged them as a shrine. I resisted the urge to play. The veins of blues that run through Jazz, R&B, and Rock’n’Roll (at its best) owe their vibrancy to the will to assimilate sorrow. The previous day’s exercises and improvisations were sufficient, I decided, and a much more fitting tribute since I played my last notes with the intention of living. Music should always be played with the intention to live. Glinting in their cases atop the sink and toilet, they sparkled with the promise of reincarnation in another musician’s life.

I glanced at my grandfather’s folding knife, with the resharpened tip. A knife would send a decisive message about my state of mind at death: resolute, in control of my fate. I imagined being rolled into the afghan my mother crocheted, caulking its soft fibers with my blood to seal the death-cocoon. There was a tragic, disgusting poetry to the idea of piercing my tattoo as an abortive act.

Yet a ring of charcoal black bloomed around the waterline in the process of cleaning two instruments. Dutiful to the end, I wanted to clean the residue before skewering myself. As I opened the bathroom cabinet I glimpsed a bottle of drain-cleaner in the back-corner. I could not recall seeing it before and my curiosity overcame me. A new vision stitched-together in my mind: I am found intact, ringed by the distillations of my music. That ring of black represented my last performance and private renditions of several jazz standards offered (gorgeously) in the wake of failed romance— but in celebration of the resolve to continue living. Sending these final vestiges spiraling down a drain would be blasphemous. “Damn,” I murmured with a crooked smile, “why should I feel pressure to clean when it’s my death to choose?”

I switched-off the antiseptic shine of curly-bulbs over the sink and lit a pair of candles. The drain-cleaner and a bottle of sleep-aide rested on the tub’s edge while I lowered myself into the warm water, shirtless, wearing my favorite jeans. I turned the hot-water tap open. Invigorating heat flushed across my belly, up the seam of my jeans and between my thighs. Satisfied, I closed the tap and opened my “Zzzquil”, chugged the entire bottle, and settled again with only my face and knees at the surface. I stared up, soaking in the motif. The lit wicks cast their glow onto the misty gloss of the white ceiling, like distant lanterns shining in a snow-flurry. My grandparents’ house had lights on each side of their front-door, the type of fixture that contains an incandescent bulb beneath a globe of smoky glass. The memory diffused quickly in the waves of anesthetic radiating from my guts. Side-walk salt melts in the first pelting rain of spring. I took a deep breath. I exhaled.

The prickling hot water rose over the ring and lapped at the trumpet byproducts. I saw black leaching back into the water: first in delicate wisps and then like a billowing storm-front rushing toward my skin. Drunk on my own eccentricity, I felt rapturously warm to think that the essence of musical notes would cover and cure my dead body.

I reached for the drain-cleaner. It seemed like a carafe of liquor to me: cap unscrewed, seal removed, ready to pour. I put it to my lips and drank and drank and drank and then swallowed the bottle whole like a loon gulping-down a fish. Lanterns rematerialized in the dimness, now turning green and red, like the starboard and port-side lights of passing ships: green drifting right, red leftward, multiplying and passing each other in the darkening haze.

Their reflections shimmered on the darkened surface of the bath like boozy fireflies over water. They ignited like meteors and streaked away as the poison drenched my viscera. I expected excruciating pain but the liquid combusted in my arteries. Water boiled wherever it touched my skin. My hands convulsed with steam. My torso was a lava-flow, with skin of glittering obsidian and veins of searing magma. I felt as if I would erupt in a momentous surge of tingling heat. The bathtub tremored with the promise of my aftershocks, portents of legendary power— for a moment. Then, the end began. Ash poured into my eyes and blackened my vision. My heat whithered and dissolved. A cold crescendo spread its stabbing tendrils through the bath and ice-crystals like hypodermic-needles penetrated me. Without a shiver, my body numbed. Unable to feel the tub, my sense of balance spun away in widening, meandering circles until I knew I was sinking,

sinking without any hope of the bottom, as into the middle of Lake Superior,

sinking into cold space.

Sound was All. I listened to the air escaping my lungs, rushing past my lips and nostrils. I kept listening for the surface to break but my bubbles just faded. The rest of my ‘bubbles’ followed me deeper: the echos of my poisoned viscera filled my skull. Bubbles rush through my bowels like trains, rattling the rails of my spine and blowing horns. I hear distant horns. I pull the blankets tighter around me…

…what blankets? What train do I hear, approaching a bend and then disappearing into the night? Do I hear a furnace, blowing dry warmth? Am I in pajamas? My eyes come open upon my stuffed crocodile —yellowish green in the glow of a night-light. I free my hand from the covers and run it over the cream-colored bed-spread, reading its beady embroidery like over-sized braille. The tips of my fingers whisper that adulthood was a dream, that I am where I really belong. I put my hand to my face and find nothing below my lip, not a bristle. This is Diamond Lake; this is Michigan; this is the nineties.

My body buzzes with a mixture of shivers and excitement. I turn slowly over to gaze upon my sister’s dark-brown head, so still, small, and precious. I glance at her end-table, looking for a missing pair of glasses among Grams’ figurines. Nothing is missing. Molly and I are staying with our grandparents, this October evening. She insists on the night-light, every time we visit Grams and Buck, and I cannot sleep through the night— just as it was in June, April, or February before that. I always have insomnia.

I must wander. I must repeat the ritual. I must robe myself and become like a tiny monk or wizard, swaddled like a poltergeist, treading stealthily through the doorway into the hallway, dragging a train of pale blankets. I break the seal of an adjacent bedroom and release a cold draught to peer inside: everything is just as it always is— how else could it be? Cunningly, I close the door again as I spin. A faux candle leftover from Christmas casts a modest ring of incandescence into the short hallway, making long shadows from end-tables and potted plants; it doubles itself in a strategically hung mirror on the wall. I squint at my reflection, looking back at me from just above the candle’s echo. My face is rosy and creased from being squished into the pillow-case. I often pace in order to think better.

Someday, all of this will be gone. To know this, so young, is both sublime and unfair. I arise into the chill of the night, alone, with a sense of foreboding. My grandparents will die; decades will pass before I die and see them again. I stalk past the stairs leading to the family-room (I can just barely hear a PBS program wafting from below), toward the lake-side of the house. If I make too much noise, Grams and Buck might hear me pacing, sneaking around the house after my bedtime. I drift into the upper-living room. The facing wall is composed of picture windows. The pier-lights of other lake houses cast a dim glow over a blue and white salon-set and I pretend that the whole space is for ghosts, like me. Halogen and fluorescent lanterns on the opposite shore shine like approaching stars smearing their shining tails on the rippling waters. The glittering columns widen across the surface of Diamond Lake and mesmerize me. Awe grips me every time. The lake is huge but I am small. I collapse onto the couch, into the fabric of the room to console myself, and further enshroud with a blanket draped over its back, becoming snug and camouflaged: invincible to time.

I always know. My grandparents will die someday. Life as I know it will be gone. Maybe this is God’s way of helping me remember. Maybe this is like when the binding in the spine kinks, just slightly, forever bookmarks a scene in the story. Sleep would be like death, now, if I did not remember my grandparent’s house. I burrow into pillows stolen from other furniture, whisper aloud to myself about how cold the water must be, trying to resist leaving the cold living-room — neither for bed, where my memories of this house might die, nor for downstairs where I would have to explain my restlessness. They wouldn’t punish me but I fear worrying them, fear mortification. No: I crease the spine of my story and hope that it weakens the binding of time so, maybe, I might…

“Am I sleep-walking?”

“Feel your face —”

“I thought I was in the bathtub, then I dreamed I was on the davenport at my Grandparents’ house…”

“Only Grams ever calls it a Davenport— you’re really me!”

“You… I used to be you. I always knew those nights had something supernatural in them, though I’m not sure why. How did I get to be standing-up? I was you a moment ago.”

“Why is your beard so little?”

“It’s called a ‘soul-patch’; it’s cool.”

“It looks weird on my face.”

“It’s on my face, silly, and you always knew you would grow-up to be weird.”

“Yeah. When I was littler, I thought I could mutate into a cartoon by acting very very weird.”

“I knew that.”

“I hope it doesn’t warp history if I touch it. Get closer to me.”

“I’m going to touch your dimple. Even trades.”

“That tickles” “THAT tickles”

“I have lots of little scars on my hands in the future?”

“When you get older, Buck will let you work with him on houses and you’ll tear up your hands doing handy-work. Also, from playing with the dog…”

“—what dog?—”

“…then you become a camp counselor and cut-up your hands in the woods. Little things happen. That circular one is from a wart removed at the clinic. What dog?! Yours. Oh that’s right…”

“I always wanted a dog.”

“It’s hard to believe but that little sister of yours will finally convince Mom and Dad to get both of you a dog. He’s black and brown, just like you imagine.”

“I have a dog!”

“Neither of us has a dog, yet or anymore, but, yeah, you won’t regret it.”

“Anymore? Did he die?”

“He lived for fourteen years: just as old as you’ll be when you meet him.”

“Then you’re at least twenty-eight.”

“Smart boy. How’s it feel to break your wrist?”

“Trick question: I was less than two when it happened.”

“You’re no more than nine. You’ll be ten when you break the other wrist.”

“I’m a smart man, too.”

“I might be you but you’re not me, yet. I contain all of you but you don’t contain even half of me.”

“But I’m going to be you, John Daniel.”

“Just call me JD, buddy-boy.”

“Cool! Call me JD, too.”

“Alright, fine. Whatever.”

“Why are you here? What’s CIES?”

“Why am I wearing my CIES t-shirt? I thought I was shirtless— sorry, I’ll answer your question: it’s the comparative and international education society. I was a member while I was in graduate school— for a while, I wanted to help students study internationally…”

“Did I ever go to Australia? Or any other places?”

“Never to Australia; I came close but the trip was canceled and I went to Belize instead— that’s in Central America. Later, you’ll visit other places.”

“Which ones?”

“…Palestine, Israel, and Jordan — for a long time— but Switzerland, Ireland, Hong Kong, and the Philippines before you start living in Washington DC.”

“—but Australia and Africa, maybe Brazil too, before I die. I guess I did not become a scientist, though. Oh well. Maybe I can be an author someday?”

“Oh, ‘insha’allah — fe’al-mishmish’, as they say in Arabic…”

“Wow! I speak Arabic!”

“—not very well. But if it makes you excited, I also speak bad Spanish.”

“It would be cool if I invented a time-machine but I guess God did this. It is miracle!”

“Well, just enjoy it.”

“I’m trying but I want to hear all the stuff I do.”

“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on in your life buddy-boy?”

“You don’t remember fourth grade?”

“I do but re-runs don’t bother me.”

“I’ll tell you later. That can be late-night TV. You can be prime-time TV and tell me about the future. That makes more sense?”

“…actually, it does.”



“…first, how did you get here?”

“…so. I’m a ghost. You die.”

“NO! Did I get in an accident or get sick?”

“—ironically, you beat a case of Dengue Fever but— no, it’s neither of those things.”

“Did I get murdered?”

“—you’re getting warmer. I killed myself.”

“—so now you’re back in time trying to fix your mistake? I bet I got electrocuted.”

“No. I did it on purpose. I succeeded at something, for once.”

“I wouldn’t do that. And I succeeded many times. I probably graduated high school and college. I learned some Arabic, you just proved that. I got into that international education society thing—”

“—just pay the dues, it’s not a big deal—”

“Did I have to take a test to get into the graduate school?”

“Yeah. But whatever.”

“I think I can probably drive by the time I am 28.”

“Buck gave you a car but all kinds of idiots drive.”

“Maybe. Did I ever get a job?”

“A few.”

“Maybe I’ll get even better ones when I fix whatever you did wrong. I am really smart and I don’t think I would die before I am eighty.”

“I don’t remember meeting a grown-up me; this is probably my last dream before my brain goes completely dead—”

“Then how did you even get here at all? Why would you come back to when you were nine and not later? I thought only sad people committed suicide, unless it was a suicide mission to save someone else’s life.”

“Maybe I’m from an alternate universe, saving my life in your universe. Right now, destiny will split and you can take a different fork.”

“Maybe you’ll get a fork, too. But what did you do? Were you just too sad and wanted to get to Heaven faster?”

“I’m not so sure about heavens anymore, buddy-boy. It’s a nice idea because then I could have back Grandpa, Buck, Grams, the dog, my favorite high school teacher, aunt Barb and aunt Martha—”

“Why are aunt Barb and aunt Martha dead!?”

“Cancer. Your step-mother has cancer, uncle Delbert has cancer, Mr. Current had cancer. The dog’s cancer killed him and now Mom’s new dog has cancer. When Grams died of a heart-attack, it was almost merciful— but it wasn’t. It wasn’t because I didn’t get to say goodbye at all.”

“You were going to see all of them anyway, if you stayed good!”

“—we are on different theological plains, I can see. I didn’t kill myself because I was grieving. I killed myself because I felt like it.”

“I would never ever feel like killing myself. Something is wrong! Are you sure you don’t have depression?”

“Damnit. I wanted to die my way. I wanted it to mean something.”

“What did you want to mean? How did you do it?”

“I just drank some drain-o.”

“Ugh. How did that taste?”

“I don’t remember because I was high as the clouds on sleeping syrup. Crap!”

“Did you get your heart broken? At love and stuff?”

“Several times. This last time, my heart didn’t break at all. We just said goodbye. It was nice to be a happy couple for about a month. We both knew it couldn’t work-out. I didn’t kill myself because of her. I didn’t even kill myself for women I thought I loved more. I just saw a good chance to die.”

“That was really stupid, though, because that’s not even a great adventure.”

“—it’s an artistic statement: laying in the bathtub with the black ring from cleaning my trumpets still stuck to the side of the tub.”

“You also play the trumpet? I do all these different cool things! I don’t understand. Why can’t you keep making artistic statements WITH trumpets if you know how to play them?”

“It’s complicated. It would be hard for you to understand.”

“I must go crazy! I’m sane, right now, so I don’t understand.”

“No, I’m not nuts! I just thought it would be a DEFINITIVE artistic statement to die this way: laying in the center of that ring, just…”

“I always hoped to do the things you already did. Don’t you hope to do things that you have not done yet? Like get married or write a book? You still have not gone to Australia.”

“I got tired.”

“I did hope to do those things by the time I was your age.”

“Maybe the problem I could have fixed was to tell you not to expect to always be so precocious. I always did things ahead of time until I graduated from high school. The level of difficulty goes up. You aren’t as special as you think, buddy-boy. You do not get to always be the best, anymore. In fact, I cannot think of one thing in the world that you are the absolute best at when you turn twenty-nine.”

“I do so much different stuff. I knew I was different from anyone else. I’m super-weird! Name someone who can do all the different stuff I can do. I dare you.”

“…someone I know personally? I mean, I know —knew, I should say— some really cool people but nobody does exactly the same… things… okay, you win that point.”

*deep voice* “Hope. Hope to do more.”

“Whoa, buddy-boy. You sounded a little froggy, there. I didn’t think my voice started changing at age nine.”

“Look at me, JD. Watch me transform.”

“…Jesus SHITTING Christ…”

“Yeah. I’m forty-nine-year-old you.”

“The whole time?!”

“Hey, mack: I contain all of that nine-year-old, all of you, and twenty years more. You would be surprised what a little fermentation can do for HIS vision and YOUR experience. I am vastly improved—”

“—no no no. You can’t exist. You look too good for fifty, for one thing. Also, we just established that I am dead. SUICIDE. This is my last dream.”

“But didn’t you fix the problem? You told the little guy that his time-lines couldn’t always be accelerated. Art takes time. Careers and relationships take effort and patience, even strategy. You’ll also have to forgive yourself for wasted time. Life is a canvas. You just learned this, am I right?”

“I did. My canvas was finished. I was content.”

“Canvas comes in rolls, Johnny-boy. You were c’n-tent or CON-tent? Were you satisfied and therefore forfeited agency?”

“I was c’n-tent to BE the CONtent in that bathtub. And suicide is an irreversible act of agency!”

“Everything you do is an act of agency— suicide prevents you from doing anything more. It’s using your agency to end itself. Ha! Didn’t Fred tell you that Life is a long distance run?”

“I tried not to think about anyone but myself while I was committing suicide. I guess I was being a selfish bastard. Rub it in. I cannot commit any more noble acts of agency for humanity. But maybe I wanted to use my autonomy to end my agency so I wouldn’t ever have to second-guess my choices again.”

“Oh skip it: it’s fine. I needed to let myself be selfish, just once. I screwed-up in reverse, anyway, so it’s not even worth feeling guilty. But I came here to fix a problem, too. JD needs to embrace a multi-faceted vision of himself, again.”

“Buddy-boy really believed he could be not just anything he wanted but everything he wanted. That never actually happens.”

“Johnny-boy, it never FULLY happens but it partially happened. What never happens is a person containing only one, superlative aspect.”

“I get it. But I have three questions.”

“I know them all. Number one, I could not tell you all this myself because you needed to hear it from the nine-year-old. My perspective has stretched too far to reverberate in your skull-chambers but his fits with room to spare.”

“You couldn’t fit those extra twenty years?”

“That would be like building skyscrapers from the top downward. Number two, you’re not dead. Spoiler alert: this is a dream.”

“This is all my chemically induced dream.”

“Oh no! Your mind is a complete blank right now. That’s what I wanted, deep down. You’ve hit reset on your console, so to speak, but life is not like a video game. I did not go back to the beginning when I punched the ‘konami code’: I unlocked upgrades. This is MY dream. Your dreams are not powerful enough yet.”



“…my interest is piqued, old man…”

“The answer to your third question is ‘it’s up to you, when you take over.’”

“Take-over what?”

“The dream. If you want to be nine again, so you can go downstairs and hug your grandparents, then you need to muster some ‘magical realism’ because I am about to let go. I believe in me— you need to believe in me, too. You need to hope to do the things I’ve done.”

“Tell me some of those things, then.”

“Nah. I only let you tell me things when I was nine because I was faking-you-out. We both know fourth-grade was limiting compared to the rest of life. Nice try, captain re-run.”

“I’m captain re-run? You’ve lived all of this before.”

“No, actually. There was a blank spot on my metaphysical cassette, so to speak. It took me twenty years to figure out that I could superimpose this moment because I —the nine-year-old version of us— had mentally marked this space. Maybe the two of us had a hand in it, too: you made the canvas, I hold the brush, but buddy-boy set-up the easel long, long ago. He believed the best was yet to come—knowing that the worst was coming, too.”

“He had a lesson coming. I lost all of this: the lake, my grandparents—”

“—but not your sister in the other room and certainly not pieces of the life our grandparents wanted for us. Most of that is still to come. The best is yet to come for you, even more than for him.”

“How do I know? Where’s the proof?”

“Hope doesn’t work that way. You need a dash of Faith. That cold night at Grams’ house was the last thing I remembered before I blacked-out and awoke in a different reality.”

“Heaven? Did I really die?”

“No. You cast a spell. I awoke on an Earth where everything else was the same but I was different. Upgrade = unlocked. Medicine man.”

“Oh, that’s cute. Now you’re misappropriating indigenous cultures and—”

“—aren’t you a medicine man, for lack of better terms?”

“Aren’t you me?”

“Goodbye, me. Good luck getting downstairs before my dream ends.”

“I think it’s my dream.”

“Now it can be your dream but you’re brain-dead, lying on the bottom of a bathtub. This is our gift to you, from the eternal alcoves of your soul.”

“The bathtub doesn’t have a bottom anymore…”

“…very good! Yes! Remember that!”

“I will?”

I blink. The Sun is rising too soon and the windows are filling with light so bright that my eyes cannot adjust. I try to run toward the staircase but my legs entangle in the blankets. I trip. My body hits the floor with a thud and I think I can hear a voice say “Marilyn, I think one of the kids…” but the world is becoming all sound again: trains, fighter-jets, trumpet riffs, and a rush of bubbles through water. I thrash to shed the blankets. My elbow hits something hard and cold, then the heel of my foot strikes something. Clang. I gasp and spit.

My eyes came open. Of their own volition, my arms flailed in search of the couch, the pillows, the soft warmth of the lake-house. Instead, I knocked an empty bottle of sleeping syrup across a bathroom in Washington, DC. The ring on the tub and the bottle of drain-cleaner were gone. The candles had not yet expired. I focused for several minutes on the left side of my chest: orange and black in the light of the flames.

The tattoo still says “…to seek Justice and resist evil,” but below the text I noticed the Bethlehem municipal star.


Wrestling the Anchor: Dredging for Treasure

“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson


This is so weird to see: Omitted-ex & I

In 2010, I bought a journal at a store in Grand Rapids Michigan with that quotation on the cover. Yesterday I read and annotated those hand-written reflections from five years ago. My brief but sweet romance dissolved, a week ago; it was an amicable split that left me both deeply ‘blue’ and hopeful for new opportunities. That is all I need to say of my “Fli” (my so-fly “former love interest”; “ex-girlfriend” sounds negative); the break with “Fli-girl” left me on a higher level than when we met in February, much unlike the scuttled commitment with “Omitted-ex” that burned and sank in 2010. This seems like the perfect chance to understand my ‘story-arc’ better through intentional reflection.

For my sake, take a few steps back to an earlier point in the causal chain, readers; allow me to look more closely at this period to understand the subsequent stages. The journal begins with an unironic “Dear Jesus,” –an earnest salutation that heads all of its entries, starting on April 25th 2010. “I want desperately to shed my skin right now.” it reads, “I think I am still learning it is okay to be inconsistent that way, so long as I draw closer to our Father. […] My own feelings have been hard to reign in. I feel that I have been put back up against familiar struggles in an unfamiliar stage. [Omitted-ex]’s initiation of this stage has put me on a continual defensive. But the point of this journal is to buck-off the past a little and get focused on the building…”

My first sticky-note annotation notes that, “[f]rom the beginning, reigning-in his emotions and defensive” referring to my younger self in the third person.  Near the end of April, the comments begin to get tart. “My prose, here, relies on a Western Christian idiom even though I am talking to myself…” Here is the 29 year old man, the man whose lived between Jerusalem and Washington’s orbit for an accumulation of four years, dissecting a former-self that had not left Michigan. “Where is all the fucking profanity? He was hurting but he won’t say shit.” Rather than following the annotations’ course I decided to focus on unpacking my reading of this old journal.

My five-years-aged emotions were impossible to connect with because the prose was a continual swirl of self-deprecations, as well as generic frustration, coated in this alien phraseology. Especially between mid-May and mid-June of that year, I wrote permutations of the same, impotent ideas — I said little about friends, my job, or events happening in the world. Everything revolves around the grinding de-escalation of this one romance and my corresponding attempt to rewire my spirituality (my ways of thinking and feeling at the intersection of ontology and epistemology). Omitted-ex and I became entangled pursuing a narrow vision of mutuality. There was an idea of “we” whose parameters came from conservative ‘Christian’ authors that she read rather than from improvising together — in absence of an “us-groove”, there was this misfit-chart for securing love. “The haptics do seem to be indicative,” I annotate, referencing how she stopped touching me, “I can see [Omitted-ex] hanging-on when she shoulda’ known it was over.”

May 15th, 2010 marked a critical down-turn. The entry begins with some sharp relational analysis: I speculate that she is chasing an abstract sold to her by publishers, that there could be months of “toil” punctuated by an ultimate rejection or, worse, a miserable courtship leading to “an emotionally abusive relationship of withholding”. This slice of sophisticated pessimism appears like an anachronism but it is the rest of the journal that is out of place. Things I knew before and have known since about Life, The Divine, and relationships were inaccessible to my mind that spring. I start building a wall over my common-sense in the next paragraph, brick-by-brick using the ideas of ‘Faith’ gleaned from those toxic books she wanted me to read. That Faith was made from inertia and introspection, which explains my over-correction a year later: I built a Faith on perpetual activism.


Sticky-note annotations.

Sticky-note annotations.

I could already sense The Dragon trying to cannibalize The Boy; I often refer to my hardened, social-justice-obsessed persona as The Dragon. His breath reeks of burning tires, his claws are like exposed re-bar, and he compares all previous suffering to the burn of tear-gas against the eyes. He emerged from the hot ashes of ‘her’ books when I burned them and fed on hookah smoke in the West Bank while Gaza burned in 2012. “Be compassionate to yourself,” I annotate. When I see things like “I am a very loved stupid person” it is tempting to separate myself from that by starting to mock. That affirms the label rather than recognizing the circumstances that tied my cognitions in a knot: deaths, unemployment, family tensions.  My sense of determination was like a dangling tentacle, eager to wrap itself around that romance because my parents had recently divorced. Perspective was missing, not intelligence– as is the case with many people.

Some paleogeologists postulate there was a period of total glaciation in Earth’s history — Snowball Earth — which delayed the onset of the ‘Cambrian Explosion’. The diversity of life’s forms accelerated rapidly in the Cambrian period and the phyla of animals we know today appeared. June 15th, 2010, three days after Omitted-ex and I split, the first signs of life appeared. “My thoughts stretch on. This growth cannot be about her now. It is quickly going to become about *page-break* vocation.” The word “vocation” slapped me awake as I wiped my brow, sitting on a patio in DC summer humidity. By July 1st, I start to write in ways that I recognize as my own voice. On the 7th, momentum is building: “Wow. My history is discouraging in this department. Yay? Yay for an excuse? No. Not yay or guilt. Move on.” That final imperative struck a bass-string in me, five years later: move-on.

Cross and maskJuly 30th shows me more about who I was, then, than any entry before. “Then I looked in the mirror and saw how odd I looked. I didn’t see a handsome guy with flaws. I saw an odd son-of-a-bitch but… I felt like I could like him. Maybe I want a friendship with myself. To put it through a Faith lens, I knew that your love was unconditional [to Jesus]. Your grace doesn’t un-kink my image or even my insides. You love each ugly bastard.” In that paragraph I see a fragment of myself. This idea of Grace has no Salvation in it. I was unable to see my beauty and felt as if I had to accept feeling ugly, as if there was nothing I could do. Quickly, I ran from the patio into the bathroom to look at myself in the mirror. I looked so good: a runner’s body, manicured soul-patch, grandma Gore’s eyes, grandpa Rice’s crooked smile, and an anchor tattoo. Where he saw a weed I saw a fragrant herb.

Dredged + Salvaged

To my mild surprise, the first mention of “mission” appears in the entry for September 8th, 2010. It is still partially lodged in the same, dislocated ‘Christianese’ scaffolds but it’s there: “My stumbling blocks seems easier to see and process. It is so strange to see the skeletal structure of hidden assumptions I have, even if it is such a mere glimpse. I have the basics of a spiritual plan and one for career (ish) ~ yet I find myself toying with the idea of a mission. What is your will? Am I ready to be sure?”

Reading later entries, I discovered an incarnation of myself with whom I wanted to connect. I remembered him reaching for a sense of balance, often handling things in his life with a basic sense of graciousness that shames my snarky ‘Dragon’ self. At times when I might be angry, he responds with a disciplined humility. At the same time, I see his damaged self-respect and his desire for something exterior to define him. The stage was set. Still, I find it comforting to know that I am returning to myself, again, with some perspective that he lacked. Endless hell will not claim me.

The anchor represents a sense of perspective. Now, I can start talking about my journey abroad. “Do you realize,” I whispered to my past self, “that you are two years away from swimming in a waterfall in Southeast Asia?” Then I realized that it had been three years since I swam in that waterfall — since losing my first anchor necklace. To think that I will probably never see that waterfall again makes me much sadder than the loss of Omitted-ex. The difference between depression and the life-giving blues is clear now: Fli-girl is like the waterfall and I wanted her to stay that way. I said goodbye. I said “move-on”.

To be continued…

Wrestling the Anchor: Nautical Impressions

I wear an anchor pendant. Unhoused neighbors, in uncanny encounters, recognize it as a sign of faith, at times, and indicate it when they ask for donations. There is a subtle lift to being recognized for what I am despite not being sure what composes me, or how to express it — the nebulous, shifting bounds of this spirituality. When a classmate inquired about the anchor’s meaning, I knew it was time to revisit reflections from the first two summers after I graduated from Michigan State…

Anchor pendant & grandpa's locker

My anchor pendant pictured atop my grandfather’s army/air-force foot-locker.

My father had decamped. In the wake of my grandfather’s death, I rushed into his space to become man-of-the-house. I literally filled grandpa’s shoes: laced their tiny riggings, sailed through fields and woods of (now) grandma’s farm. I never ‘filled his shoes’ in the idiomatic sense because my mother needed none other than her departed father; a son was not enough. I could never channel grandpa’s voice but the impetus to speak his words hung limp on those shoes, while they dangled from my feet, as I swayed on the wooden seat of an old swing and looked into the sky: empty but for the merest wisps.

Green fields in summerThat day was so sunny, so filled with light, that shapes lingered on my retinas, like watercolor paintings on my closed eyelids. Faithful, faith-filled meditations tinted those weeks. To describe myself as strictly ‘Christian’ (now) would mislead readers but many ‘spiritual soundings’ in my life emerge from fragments embedded during my nominally Christian past. I had counseled at church camp, that summer, and afterward I meditated on a Pauline list of virtues called “fruits of the spirit”: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, & Self-Control. Far from sea, and an hour from a Great Lake, I shut my eyes and submerged in the trough of scents between gentle swells of hill. Love became the ubiquitous fragrance of sun-warmed hay, Joy the whiff of fabric softener from between the buttons of my shirt, and then Peace… (swaying…)

…like a pencil rubbing of a sunken ship’s bell, the archetype of an anchor bloomed in diffuse shades. I rubbed gently against ‘Peace’. Its impression came into focus and resolved into the hooking flukes, long shank, and cross-like stock of a sea-anchor. Swinging (swaying) at the ends two rusted chains, I closed my eyes and imagined sinking, sinking (swaying) to the sandy bottom: Peace. I was dating a lady who graduated from an obscure, Christian school called “Hope College” and their logo is an anchor. My youthful brain twisted the apparition into a kind of endorsement for that relationship, for an idea of ‘Hope’ that included her. It was more endearing than foolish: I wanted to build a foundation in Michigan with her. I wanted to be a man like my grandfather was or like I imagined my father should have been; swimming (swaying) between their dual-departures, I seized an idea of myself as strong.

Sun setting over a light-house on Lake MichiganI think too seldom about our red-flag ‘invitation’ from the Muskegon park authorities. She and I went to the beach, there, besieged by high-winds and semi-dangerous waves flung against the shore by Lake Michigan. In the chaos, once feeble eddies surged. Undercurrents, feelings, all manner of things that are stifled under the scrutiny of the sun were uncoiled like giant pythons. Despite more ‘suitable’ and dapper attempts to be attractive, when last I succeeded at romance it was as a half-naked, half-bearded outdoorsman following a woman into The Seething Lake. She wanted to swim. We were up to our wastes in cold, sloshing, foamy water as we laughed and charged through the surf. The rocking of the lake bent our knees, made us falter and fall — laughing. As we went deeper, she held onto me as the waves pawed at us (swaying) and I dug my feet into the sand, hard, to keep her from being washed away. I was an anchor. She held me tight. So tight.

The Lake, A field, A swing-setBut she was a fair-weather companion. Her behavior and god changed as the surf rose. Her Faith foundations were made from perfect, yet impossible, blocks. I am made of glacial till, myself, like the almost-round (but-never-quite-so) fieldstones unearthed by grandpa’s disc-plow each spring. I could not be so hewn, could not have perfect edges, and it did not matter to her the strength of my material, only that my life had shaped me imperfectly. Wave after wave filled my mental shadow-box with shards of calamity: another dying grandfather, a breached apartment, more family afflicted with cancer, and the unsteady employment many faced in the recession. In the midst of such frustration, Western Christian culture’s heavenward rhetoric could not buoy me, nor salvage our romance. The god I was trying so hard to love and trust became a nasty side-effect from a drug that never worked. This god was made of sugar-pill, cheap-ass, self-help books that my ex-girlfriend read — where was the real god? Was there ever one? The universe should have issued a recall.

I often remember the day she left my neighborhood for the last time, the scene so sublime. Her green Jeep crested my hill in Grand Rapids Michigan engulfed by the setting sun, like a canoe disappearing into a golden mist just before the waterfall; I never saw her again. I sprayed those books with old mosquito repellent and lit them like a ritual sacrifice. In the ashes of depression, I found a stillness.

Deep, dark, almost still waters... The anchor I saw was Peace, not Hope. Peace is meant to nestle into my hull — my deepest self — and be ballast against the gales, a rocking mantra in heavy seas. Peace can plunge deep into the unknown of my self, into my darkest depths, and find a foundation. It needs no buoy. Peace has never been an absence of conflict any more than an anchor is a charm against storms. Importantly, Peace and anchors require some degree of learning. I would do well to tie a line from my anchor to the next fruit in the series: patience.

It would be a year before I saw an anchor again. In the intervening months, however, I was visited by The Mystery.

To Be Continued…

Hit Send: My Letter to the New York Times

Dear New York Times Staff,

NYT     I was disappointed but unsurprised to learn of an article that saw exposure in your publication on January 6th. It portrays the Palestinian Authority as being party to revisionist and hateful education in Palestine. Having lived and worked with Palestinians for more than a year, I know this piece is derivative of settler propaganda and lax journalism. I did encounter a disadvantageous bitterness in a few Palestinians (of course) and I have my own criticisms of the Palestinian Authority but this piece is an embarrassing example of what Dr. Edward Said described as “orientalism”. Special-interest groups who assembled and spoon-fed your paper that material are merely appealing to the cultivated ignorance of the United States public. The privileging of the Holocaust narrative, no matter which side is lionized, is ludicrously Euro-centric. The historical Holocaust is all but lost in these retro-fittings used to mask the abuse and displacement of Palestinians – a real barrier to peace. It isn’t even an Arab brand of bitterness; that’s how far detached the supposed curriculum is and how far our discourse has fallen behind reality: stereotypes sprinkled over tropes. It has little to do with what Palestinians actually learn in school or how their education is supported (or thwarted) by this country.

The veracity of the curricula, which many others are busy debunking, remains irrelevant. Even if those were actual Hamas or Hezbollah curricula, these would be nothing but a rancid pile of red-herrings: a stench to draw attention away from the occupation and the illegal settlement project. Just as The American Studies Association and the Modern Language Association are beginning to openly debate Israel’s discriminatory border policies, just as the European Union grows impatient with Israel’s flouting of international law, just as companies feel the tremors of the growing BDS campaign– just as all of that is happening, someone produces this content. These curricula were cards in-hand, played expertly at the appropriate opening. It is all pure smoke-screen, especially the notion that Palestinian prejudice is institutional and Israeli prejudice is isolated in extreme pockets. How laughable: I moved across check-points on a weekly basis and saw the army toying with people. I know about the violence that takes place without impunity (settlers, soldiers, cops) – and chuckled bitterly when a Likud politician publically stated they intended to do with the Bedouin (Arab Israelis, not Palestinians) “what the Americans did with the Indians”. With so many instances of Arab dehumanization taking place, it would be small wonder if there were reactionary school curricula! Apartheid is sickening and Israel needs every distraction they can to continue realizing their ‘manifest destiny’.

Manifest Destiny: when we look back at our nation’s history, we see examples of white people glorying in their dreams of entitlement. Israel wants to take the land from its inhabitants and Americans cannot seem to grapple with this kind of gilded-age theft, possibly because we have not truly faced the theft perpetrated on this continent. Meanwhile, The New York Times has lost the semblance of substance in order to keep selling these fantasies about Israel. Unfortunately, it is Israelis who will suffer consequences in the coming years because America has loved what they should be, not what they are. Though I have met excellent, kind Israelis who love human dignity, I know that there are bratty, bigoted, greedy Israelis as well – just like there are unsavory people in every country. No one is exceptional. If we cannot find compassion for embittered Palestinians, I believe we will stab Israelis even harder in the back for resources lost. Billions of US tax-dollars pour into that country. Israel needs a friend that will tell the truth, not blind allegiance. The Likud-led coalition is leading them down the darkest of paths. Thank you for receiving my letter: I hope The New York Times becomes part of the solution rather than the problem, else I will never find reason to subscribe.

With realistic hopes,

John Daniel Gore
Speaking for himself.

Epilogue: I feel at peace. I nearly hesitated to post this letter at all, fearing I would become defined by my scathing critiques. There is so much more to me than the issues I have worn on my sleeves for nearly three years. I want to transition from an activist to a teacher and artist — hopefully a friend and partner to someone before this decade is gone; I want to love… yet I feel compelled to fight hate. Since I had already documented the previous incarnations of this work, it was fitting to submit the final draft. The cold critique is most appropriate for a chilling business like Israeli apartheid and the system of curtains drawn around it. This little ‘opus’ brought me back into right relationship with my emotions: neither walking on eggshells like the Coarse Draft nor indulging in bombastic polemic like the Angrier Draft. Sometimes, we in the solidarity movement do more harm than good but this time I kept my veins ‘icy’. I can go back to healing, now.

Thank-you for reading.