Pentagon City Mall: Craziness Dawns! 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…” 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.


Pentagon City Mall: Contrapuntal Imagery

Lough Tay Wicklow, brought to you by via a quick google search. Go gaze on their brilliant photographs of Ireland!

Lough Tay Wicklow, brought to you by via a quick google search. Go gaze on their brilliant photographs of Ireland!

An image surfaced as I journaled two days ago, neck-deep in the food- court. I was surprised that any peace of mind — that any piece of my mind — could be floating in the swamp at the bottom of the mall. I dove into the middle to prove I could, to make friends with the absurdity rather than pace endlessly outside until it was time to board the train again. As I suspected, the insanity of the mall would not subside, yet some current running through that loony place stirred me. I needed to be dredged.

It is not a poem yet. In fact, I did not have much luck wrestling with the images on lined paper last night. A tower keeps vigil over a treeless sea-coast. There is a bushy beard of mosses and algae clinging to the outcrops and the low-rumpled skies are the slightly purple gray of an expiring rainstorm in late afternoon. The storm has stripped the tower’s facade like old wrapping paper, leaving tatters stapled to the cross-beams around its waist: a ruined tutu. It may be in shambles but not from neglect: it’s not old enough for that. Though the very base is made of field-stone, most of its height is stitched together from long steel beams that stretch skyward, like a giant inverted and funnel-web, frozen brittle, pulling away from the luxurious coast toward an unseen heaven. When my vocabulary and my muse return to me, I want to stand on the highest ledge and swing a grappling hook at a passing comet… when my muse comes alive and I have the words with me, like arrows in a quiver…

—no, like a magazine clicking into the stock of a semi-automatic rifle and (maybe not that either)—

The metaphor, here, is that my desire for success is like that tower. The material is excellent but the structure is poorly wrought. Like the tower of Babel, this spire of success is actually reverse engineered from my failure to reach the heavens. The Bible tells the story precisely backward, as if God must have foiled our plans. Human Beings are arrogant and we needed a sound explanation for why we could not unite for a greater good but, instead, chose to stay fragmented once some of us left Africa. Likewise, I always envisioned myself as Cassopolis’s greatest progeny but after a few decades I was “just a guy at college” (my aunt’s words, taken out of context), just an unemployed graduate, and then just an ironic missionary who fought hard for good, with my bad attitude. Soon… a guy with a notebook. I need an explanation for why I never lassoed that comet, anything other than “comets cannot be lassoed”.

Music videos from the nineties played in the food-court: Pearl Jam, No Doubt, Smashing Pumpkins. Aromas crawl from under the tables of a nearby Starbucks, other scents whisper of greasy meats from a 1950’s themed diner beyond…

…but I smell damp air rising from behind the boulder that sits by the foundations of my tower. A fissure appeared where the steely buttresses of that failed edifice drive their stiff fingers into the stone like freshly kneaded bread. As the tower leans flaccidly to one side in the driving wind, the Earth beneath it is pried wide. The trickles of water snaking along the beams coalesce and tunnel there way into that opening. How long does it take to make a cavern from rain-water? How long did I hang far above, fussing with rivets and cursing the sky, while a passage grew organically beneath my gaze?

—how long have I been in the damn mall, again?—

I read that poets should write not as themselves but as if they are the person who knows them best: JD gets lower than he ever imagined, further from the stars and away from the rain. I finally see him entering the cave. His hands are rusty brown with the soggy grit of its opening maw. Protected from the wind, the atmosphere congeals; it swallows him one tentative foot-plant at a time until he is subdued by the cool, heavy aura wrapping around his chest. The shivering subsides and his eyes come to the verge of adjusting. No, he grows whiskers. This is magical realism so I want whiskers coming from my face, elbows, and knees like an otter plumbing along the bottom of a river.

You all can imagine: it’s a work of contrasts. Here I want the readers to feel the burgeoning closeness as I descend. They should feel the walls constricting like veins and hear the muffled churning of distant calderas beneath extinct or infant volcanoes (the difference is only in whether the eruptions are past or future). I wanted to write two contrapuntal litanies of oblivion. In the first, I could be swept away into the most exhilarating, yet final, act of my life as I make a desperate leap for a wispy, gambling miracle to consummate my career as writeractivistmusicianperson. I imagine JD swept into the wind yelling “I always Loved You!”, while I watch myself from the ground, asking “what!? Who in the world am I talking about?” In the second, I could be rendered functionally dead at any moment. A heavy stone might slide into the tunnel behind me and force me to write myself deeper and deeper into the cave — maybe into a submerged chamber. Maybe eat some mysterious fungus and grow gills— no! JD dies a boring death, whispering in vain “did you love me, [ ]? How about you, [ ]? Or you… or you… or me? I wish I’d brought an instrument to play…” In the cave, he resigns to obscurity. He can do anything he wants until decay sets in and concludes his eccentric metaphor for thwarted self-actualization.

An alternative ending is that my friend Cliff crawls in behind me and says, “Dude, what are you doing down here? We’re having a barbecue. There’s going to be kabobs and fruit-salad– probably some hard-boiled eggs—”

“—the fertilized duck-eggs you ate in the Philippines?”

“Sure. It’s pretend. You can even have a gorgeous wife, if you want.”

“I want to try one of those — I mean a duck-egg. I also… okay nevermind: let’s just go. I don’t care if you’re in Los Angeles & I’m hallucinating in a D.C. mall. Yulla & bye-bye, hole-in-the-ground…”

I didn’t come to this point — to tolerating the mall — via tower or tunnel. I came via barbecue: people have crawled in behind me and said “Uh… we like you; do you want some food? You obviously have places you would rather be…” This ties in closely with themes of acceptance I can explore another time — where success is a river and (no: another time… I promise we will get there).

I shut my notebook and opened my eyes: the entire mall was at my disposal.

Pentagon City Mall: a draft

Mall anticsThe black ones were from the ‘Payless Shoes’ store near the Tenley Town Metro station, purchased just as August began. I threw my pair of white tennis shoes into the garbage, right there, and walked away in the same pair of black walking-shoes I wore into the Pentagon City Mall — now heavily scuffed and crusted with road salt. I looked at the mall map for a puzzled minute, then rode the escalator to a ‘Walking Company’ ~ some kind of shoe store I had never heard of before. I’m from the ‘stix’ of Michigan… via occupied Bethlehem. Pentagon City Mall might be more exotic to me than some of my contemporaries.

I might as well start with the shoes, if I am showing the passage of time. I am trying to write this with a minimum amount of second-guessing and I chose shoes as my metaphor — the cross-trainers from Ireland were the shoes that walked three continents. The white shoes from Plainwell represent the period of more crippling disarray between the bombardment of Gaza — while I was still in the West Bank — and the US Campaign to End the Occupation Conference that help start me on the road to greater peace-of-mind without completely losing a grip on justice. Lately, I’ve been making even more allowances for myself since I know that my most volatile outrage, however just or rooted in hard facts, cannot inhere lasting peace; the way of wi’am (and salaam, by extension) must be patient and creative — and kinder than I was a year ago, after steeling myself for the final flight from Tel Aviv. The mall can be too much like an airport, perhaps, but I felt more comfortable in my skin as I interacted with the shoe-clerk — as I noticed myself functioning normally. She was there to help: size my feet, make suggestions, bring me nice shoes. “Well, I like the brown ones — in brown, actually. Thank you so much…”

The brown shoes were all I needed: a fresh start. I could put them on and flee the strangeness of shopping malls. Yet there was something else I knew I needed from Pentagon City: therapeutic reconnaissance. I am emerging from an uncertain incubation period, of sorts, since I decided that my future lies more in libraries and classrooms than at the negotiating table — I wanted nothing less than to be a mediator like my ex-supervisor (Zoughbi Zoughbi). I wanted to feel about myself the way that I feel about him. Supportive friends are helping me see that I have gifts of my own. Of course, this journal needs to cease being an outlet for self-administered therapy. There was a story taking place: a missionary on a domestic assignment descended into a mall food-court to transcend his reverse culture-shock —and tinge of PTSD?— by immersion. He (I) unsheathed a lined-notebook and began journaling… in pen, on a table in the mall food-court. I dared myself to soak it all in without dilution, sans critiques about materialism or augmented reminiscences about open-air markets.

As the hard-drive in my skull de-fragments, day by day, the paradox becomes more clear: all of the pieces I need to succeed, except for the hours of practice soon to come, have always been with me. There is continuity. Simultaneously, there is an irreversible discontinuity: I’ll never walk through the mall like I did as a teenager. So many adept attributes have fled me forever and I’ll always be stitched together rather than fully integrated — always a little bit absent-minded, always unable to fully digest the absurdities. I have lived in fear of the day I learned I would never be normal again…

But this is good! I can sense the absurdity. Though I have struggled desperately with a confluence of disappointments, those mental fractures healed by the Grace of The Divine and became my antennae — like a broken foot that aches when storms approach. My tolerance is rising rather than the mall’s ludicrousness diminishing.

—after I had finished sketching some thoughts, I decided to take a walk around the entire building. I wish I had all night to talk about it: the whole experience was surreal. The Mall is the closest I may ever get to absinthe — it’s like my first time in a haunted house or like walking into the Garden of Gethsemane and whispering “Jesus cried & bled here”. It’s so much weirder than most of you can know simply because you are accustomed. All the wonders of the ocean are a mystery to fish.

Ciao, friends.