1562 Pennies Later…

I hit a concrete column as I tried to enter a slot in the underground parking structure at Safeway grocery store. My surprise at my nonchalance did not quite overpower an ambient numbness. I hit the same spot on my bumper’s edge (right-side, under the headlight) that struck the stump when I slid off the road in Michigan this January. My life started visibly falling apart from that moment forward, though ‘the beginning’ was surely over a decade ago. The smear of red-paint on concrete, though, was just another brushstroke in my figurative portrait of wreckage. “Hey Pontiac,” some one called to me as I opened my door, “I could take that out for $100.” I waved him off and said it wasn’t worth his time. He insisted, so I confessed I was too broke and it wasn’t worth it to me anymore. My errand at the grocery store added another, sublime layer; I opened the passenger compartment and lifted two pasta jars of pennies I inherited from my deceased grandfather in 2009. It was a Tuesday, almost nine years later.

I came to that store location for the change-machine. Safeway has a green box with a glowing stats-screen and a chute into which a person can stuff unknown sums of coins, receiving a cash voucher. The 11% fee did not deter me. Just a minute ago, I had climbed the stairs in a public place cradling glass containers mostly full of pennies! Each time I changed residences for the past nine years I carried them with– not anymore. I started dumping. The machine requires using fingers to feed the change into a slot. I glutted it, shoving droves of pennies into the slot until the display screen read “Woah! That’s a lot of change you have. Give us time to catch-up.” I watched the penny count climb, eying my old Sobe bottle half-full of nickels and dimes (a mere parenthetical compared to the river of pennies): so much change in so little time.

Uninterested in the voucher, I watched the overall penny count mount 1000 and keep going. Of course, the title gives this part away: by the time I emptied the bottle of nickels and dimes (with a few, odd pennies in it) over fifteen-hundred pennies went through the maw of the cheeky, green machine. “Seventy-three dimes?” I coughed, “holy-shit-monkeys, I had seven dollars of dimes in that bottle.” The voucher crested twenty-two dollars, though the actual value had been closer to twenty-five. The machine fed me the slip, in return; I tucked it into a sagging jeans-pocket and walked away with my empty jars to get a shopping-cart. I will never forget how I forgot them on purpose– I’ve hauled-around that Sobe bottle (with the change-slit in the lid) since the fall of 2004– no more. The beginning of the rest of my life was at hand. It always technically is but the meaning of life is whatever significance we attach to its moments so, really, the rest of my life was at hand because I chose to create a narrative turning-point from $22 of groceries, three glass containers left in the bottom of a shopping cart, the brushstroke of car paint on the concrete column, and the scabby texture beneath the headlight of my 2005 Pontiac Sunfire left from collisions two-months apart. “When I get the chance, I need to sell ‘Fiona’ like my stepdad says I should…”

I was not drunken, just a bit loopy. For two weeks I had been fighting a cold in my sinuses and chest while doubling my dosage of antidepressants. Whether the medicine or my immune system is the reason, I cannot know yet, but I was improving. Unfortunately, I cannot think about who I lost for very long before– I need to make this the critical turning-point, even if by pure story-making– to regret is necessary but I cannot let it become overwhelming — dude, do not begin to ask “what if” or else…

Earlier this year, I imagined walking to the beach. Readers, banish visions of a cleansing sun, the saltine smell of the surf, the chortles of playing gulls mingled with children’s antics, and the rainbows of beach balls and shade umbrellas. In my reverie, I walk toward Lake Michigan chasing the last amber of sundown through a knotted fabric of clouds. The wind bellows to life, driving snow into my tearing eyes; I ignore snow creeping down my boots. The silhouette of an unlit lighthouse looms over the red and green beacons marking a channel. I try not to think of the day we– but it is easy to think only of ICE. I scramble over the boulders marking the seawall, onto a crunchy moonscape of frozen H20. I can escape all signs of human life. The sound of breakers draws me far from the beach, to a glacial cliff-face that only exists in the darkest phases of winter. Second-thoughts shriek for dear life, beckon to me as I glance over my shoulder at the merry lights of docked boats, smudges of light from nearby condos, and even a few stars. A hand clamps over my face: it’s mine?! I run. I run to the sound of the waves and I finally jump, not quite knowing what kind of shock awaits me. I remember the Cliffs of Mohr, in Ireland, and the exhilaration of wondering what it would be like to jump from such great heights, not wanting to ever hit the water. This time, I want the water: the overpowering cold to finally end– “no, not the cold, Charlie, no…”

By the time I stopped that suicide fantasy completely, this February, I had already lost her. I know that I loved her because I don’t want her to suffer through this process with me; I know I still love her because I cannot bear to know how she is moving-on. Instead I live each day– March is turning to April– I’ve been unemployed since June– she couldn’t– I can’t– I am–

I ambled back to Olney, MD a month ago with hopes of a speedy recovery. Since, reality has dawned. Just Wednesday I discovered a new reverie, the incubated egg of an unseasonable blizzard in greater Washington DC. Last Autumn, when I lost my apartment and had to move-in with a friend from graduate school, I discovered a moss-lined creek down the hillside from a fun outcropping of rocks in a public park. Those were better times, even with the trees already naked of leaves. I imagine walking toward the creek with my 1974 Benge* Trumpet in my left hand and (in my right) a small, sharp pocket-knife with a bear depicted on the handle. The moss is frosted with snow, the stones lacquered to a dim shimmer by ice, but the water is flowing freely away. Poetic death is at hand. In my grandfather’s jacket, wearing my shoes from Ramallah and my kefia from al-khalil, I lower myself into the stream. I ready myself to lay flat into the tingling rush of the stream like a Viking upon his funeral pyre once my blood can escape into the stream. Bravely, I slash the soft underside of my left forearm. I transfer the trumpet to the other hand–

No, I don’t have my horn: I left it with the repair technician Tuesday. I cannot complete my suicide fantasy without it– I refuse to die without it– and thus I am spirited away to a plaza across the street from the Catholic University of the Americas in Washington. In one hand is my battered instrument case, in the other an umbrella to block the sleet. This was just before I went to the grocery store. The day matches my gloominess. A young woman with a dog greets me warmly and gives me directions to Randy’s shop. As soon as I walk-in among the instruments I clear the snot from my nostrils so I can smell them, smell his livelihood, reconnect with the smell of Ed Bagatini’s repair-shop next to Lake Michigan– insert all the sunny images that came to mind earlier. Of course I cannot die until my trumpet is repaired: I would not have lived this long without medical intervention if not for the hours of musical interventions across a score of years: my self-administered panacea for gloom. Maybe. “Take all the time you need to get her playable again; I want this instrument around for a long time.” That is my voice, speaking those words: meaning those words.

I found ‘a guy’ to meet my needs– beyond fixing a bracket. Randy and I talked shop for a long while; it may not be interesting to general audiences, except to note how special ‘Sugar’ is and the fact it will cost me at least $200 to make her playable again. “Oh,” I said, “that was about what I expected to have her repaired well.” It’s worth more than my front-bumper to me; I will never sell ‘Sugar’. Now, I imagine the police lifting her from my regal body– over my dead body! Don’t touch her. Forget it. The slash on my left forearm is closing; I ease from the water and the wet sublimates from my clothes; I stand by the frosted banks and play with the stream. I stand on the glacial cliff and play with the waves. I ignore the fairy-rings of death-caps and play with wind rustling the trees. I lay flat on porcelain and play to the bathtub as the drain-cleaner wells from my stomach and pours from the flared end of my trumpet– like a fountain.

“Fuck you, Charlie!” I say as I turn momentously onto New Hampshire avenue. A container of discount St. Patrick’s Day cookies from the grocery store slides across my dash. My reverie ebbs. Raucous eruptions of laughter blast from my frosting-crusted mouth. “Fuck-off, Charlie!” Charlie is what I call the gloomy voice. It’s the name I attached to my reflection in the mirror when I was three years old. Charlie was an imaginary friend with a real image, the inflection of my own. When it was suggested to me that I name ‘it’, at first I gave him names that were as vague as they were powerful: my dragon, the shadow beast, or (oldest of all) The Beige Ninja archetype– the deadly facet of mundane life. I could have addressed it so much sooner but– “Fuck you, Charlie, not because what you say is wrong but because you’re Charlie– I am going to beat you for the sake of beating you. So fuck-off, Charlie. You’re just Charlie.” I was ecstatic for a minute. I rewarded myself with a cheap sugar cookie gobbed-over with frosting; I loved the way they skidded across my dash as I drove my car. “That’s a taste of the old pep; that’s the spirit to continue.”

 

Charlie’s suggestions are more easily dismissed than a week ago, my own characteristics more potent to fill the breach. Then again, is this really the first-time I have started from ashes? It is a first time for some things.

To be continued…

P.S.: I also cannot die until May 18th, 2018, because I want to see the next “Deadpool” film. May 18th was my due-date over thirty years ago. Coincidence? Yes, I believe it is.

*Silver-plated, extra-large bore. Randy noted how the marking on the base of bell-pipe, which should be turned outward to be seen, was turned inward where I had hardly noticed it. “It looks like it was re-plated at some point. Huh… and you don’t know anything about that?”

Of course…

“Do you have something else to play in the mean-time?” “Yes! A Bach Mercedes II from the ’90s.” “Oh, those are nice.” “Yeah.” “Does it have the shepherds’ crook near the bell?” “Nope; straight-out.” “Well, I bet it still plays beautifully.” “Definitely; I won’t be SO lonely without my Benge. I have my ‘Sadie'”

Advertisements

Conflux #1

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

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

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

And now, for a brief word from out sponsor…

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

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

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

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.”

“Oh?”

“Yup.”

“…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.

“Hope.”

Reverse Exiled: Avocational Crises

blacknessLast week I opened a two-months-fermented word-document [rexiled_definitive] titled “Reverse Exiled”, like the name of this WordPress outlet. The Reverse Exiled blog materialized from the great visa-excursion of 2012, as I tried to return to my position at Wi’am. The blog shared a common purpose with the journey across Asia and back, which I understood to be navigating life from a new, multicultural perspective. Like this flagship entry, though, Reverse Exiled and all its predecessors are about the search for significance. The past ten years have been characterized by vocational crises whose genesis, ironically, is in the fear of failure and the outgrowth of warped, rushed plans wrought from wanting only excellence amid struggle. Sand-blast with personal struggle and compulsive coping mechanisms: it’s a search for significance that goes from Detroit to Davao. No negative stage has passed without some attempt to redeem the experience in my imagination — rationalizations, perhaps.

The outline I composed on the airplane between Chicago and DC this June is concerned with vocation:

-reversing exile; on my way home

-Quarter-life Crisis at Starbucks

-All of my recent challenges – interruptions to the story

-Retracing back to Mindanao/Bethlehem/sense-making. Things stopped making sense in Uncle Tom’s laboratory (should have been an ecologist) – society is made of systems of its own.

-One Love: MUSIC – then the blown audition. Never any hope… the drift away from myself

-Then came the Writing Center position?

-Then came the crash in the later years of college and just out of college

-Real-world woes… relearning life when I never learned the life I had been in…

-Coming to the yellow park-bench: having let go of music, found the deepest solace in playing

-Playing in caves

-Moving to DC; therapists;

-“What’s stopping you from writing?”

-“What’s stopping me from playing?”

-Musicianship as the underlying identity…

-…and yet: The Writer

-“Seriously… what is stopping me from writing?”

-(overkill: acknowledging the addictions)

The crisis in Starbucks is not hard to unravel: when I saw the price-tag on a graduate education I started to reconsider studying conflict resolution; the ‘man in the mirror’ is not a mediator. My work supporting Wi’am Center was indicative of my values and interests… but not necessarily my talents…

I am no stranger to vocational crises; my career as a biochemist trickled to a hault in the back laboratories of Notre Dame. My uncle showed me his neurological work zebra-fish eyes and, though animals fascinated me, the process failed to resonate in me — that kind of scientific research is something I love to read, not do. I enjoy unraveling systemic relationships; I realized this January that I could have been a wetland ecologist working in the muddy waters around this world. I might expose the subtle stitches in the changing tapestry of our world from tiny strands: the gills of mayflies or the mating habits of frogs. I could have flourished, with the right guidance…

Trumpet resonated. My dreams of playing and composing jazz hovered high above my musical foundations — I lacked sufficient training. My entire, teenage sense of significance coiled itself around a few music program auditions. Too much was at stake —my very self— and I was so far behind the musical curve that could not even acknowledge the coming turn of fortune. I lost the will to practice in the Autumn of my senior year of high school, hoping for a precipitous moment of genius that never appeared in my adult life. What even many in my family do not know is that I would have dropped out of Michigan State University and tried to audition at a smaller school had it not been for John T. Madden, director of MSU’s athletic bands. Based on the essays in my application to the marching band he encouraged me to stay in the English program, at least until I was ready to audition again. Five years later, I left with two BAs — neither of them in Music. Also, neither of them necessarily more lucrative.

When my grandfather had told me that music was an avocation, which confused and angered me. He and Grams bought most of my hardware (horns), paid for lessons, and came to concerts. Young men hate to fall passionate in love with something or someone and then be told they are “too serious”; I was the same way with ladies. Shabaab (an Arabic word — the only fitting term for that season in life) struggle to manage that kind of relationship and not lose themselves in the horror of loving without mastering, of practicing without possessing. I interred my horn in the space behind a couch and pretended to be an intentional English major. Yet my music rebounds, no matter what mode or stage of decay I reach. The avocation illuminates The Way to Vocation, no matter how long the dream remains deferred.

I developed the uncanny urge to sneak under the Bogue Street Bridge on campus and play trumpet (badly) — eventually, my tone was better than ever. Sometimes I would entertain ambitions but I mostly used my practice time as personal therapy. I learned to use a practice room when I moved across campus but I made weekend migrations there. That space was held together with graffiti and spiderwebs, held aloft over the limitless, contradictory depths of mud-steeped water running through the brewing night. Someday I want and even need to write more about the uncanny ways that alcove by the Red Ceder River worked, not just acoustically but as an expression of psyche — a motif.

The first lesson is that a true vocation — even an avocation — will keep finding ways to manifest itself; my musical experience is one of recurring ‘reverse exile’. Music creates a an irregular hollow in the quest for significance because my practice exists mostly for myself, to stave off despair and keep my prowess at a satisfactory point. Music demonstrates both that the unexercised talent becomes dull and unfulfilling but also that enough exercise revives the vocation to previous levels ~ or adds new dimensions. The unsteady love affair with the trumpet traveled to dormitory lounges, park benches, church sanctuaries, and cavernous basements (literally, caves beneath houses). My last week in my old apartment building, in DC, I haunted the vacant room downstairs and disinterred the same sweet sound that keeps saving my sanity, the sound of dreams bridled into a regulated longing, the distillation of “what-if” — a consolation. I did have the raw gifts… but to what end?

The previous ‘all time low’ in my quest for significance came in the wake of my final relationship. I started going to Riverside Park (Grand Rapids, MI) every day to riff for a while and soak in a sunset. The process of making music offered too much and the prospect of suicide too little. The hurt of the (true) blues is transcendent beyond despair because it takes us beyond shame to expression, again. Quality became irrelevant for a while. Instead of leaving the world with my give-a-damn still in it I decided to just live and not give-a-damn. I became truly process-oriented about music.

I speculated that my music would lead the way for my writing but my career interrupted my development. Last week, I kept getting to this point in the essay and freezing. My writer’s block developed into an impossible bind. Always at this point because I never succeeded — I never moved beyond that point. I walked away from my creative self to become an activist for a multitude of reasons and tonight I need to confess that I second-guess that regularly and have since I discovered, in France, that no one wants to listen to prophets. Now, I am becoming tired of listening too. Rather than believing I have a mission, I have begun to believe that the mission grew from that desire for significance — if there is a God, that God made good use of that urge but it seems all but expended as I start avoiding the constant stream of progressive news reports, longing for more beautiful things again… wishing I could braid them together because the most gorgeous facets of life — love, expression, resilience — are in real danger.

—and I’m learning this just as I write, trying to be honest instead of crafty. I want to say that the activist interceded to rescue the artist before he starved or finally had that date with the toilet-bowl cleaner (or the watermelon knife, or a half-frozen lake, or…). The activist grew not only out of that selfish longing for significance but also of preservation, a defense mechanism. I failed to launch in many ways for a complicated suite of reasons (that is putting it simply, since there is a memoir lurking in these words). More than merely saving my life, the activist in me wanted to save my existence by making my soul part of a movement toward a better society. Tonight, my optimism was challenged by a close friend, who seems content to keep doing good despite her belief that things are inevitably getting worse. One a decade-long scale, she is right. On a century-long scale, I believe she is wrong but, through the millennia, neither of us can know the prevailing arc or our species. What I do know is that I did it again: I fell in love with a vocation that I will never master. It is another element in my true vocation, another part that became a mask when it should have been an appendage.

 

I am a writer. I am a writer among many writers. I am not especially notable, thus not significant. I wish I could be something else. On the other hand, perhaps only the artist in me can rescue what is left of a very harrowed activist.

 

TBC…