Finding Balls on my Walk (another fragment)

Credit: Angela Johnson,

Photo-Credit: Angela Johnson,

I needed to go walking. How I knew I needed to walk can be the subject of a longer reflection, some other time. I varied my pace as I meandered through my Northeast D.C. neighborhood casting glances into obscure alleys or across the surface of familiar houses in order to hook something new with my eyes. I plugged my ears with the sounds of a band I liked before I left Michigan; I plugged into the lyrics of a song by Fireflight:

[Verse] “I want to know you/
There’s so much at stake/
Can’t face the memories/
They bend me till I break/
Hiding from the past/
But it’s eating me alive/
Can’t block it out/
When it’s coming from inside”

“Precious denial, a stone to break my back/
The chains I carry won’t cut me any slack/
Imprisoned by fear with no room for my heart/
My only hope, only you can heal the scars…”

“Every turn leads me to a new dead-end/

lost again, I’m screaming your name/


Come close come close and call my name/

How can you turn your back on me when you know my pain?/

Stay close, stay close; light up the night/

Save me from the part of me that’s begging to die”

‘John Daniel’ used to mean something but I prefer to be called ‘JD’ most of the time. I closed my eyes for a few seconds and started to turn my palms upward. Quickly, I opened one eye and started to look around: was someone watching? Instead, I kicked a chunk of concrete up the street, up the route I had almost traveled, and took a sharp left toward home, toward the prospect of continuing a project for graduate school. The way downhill to the bridge that spans the train-tracks was punctuated with patches of asphalt, as out of place as tuxedo jackets laid over potholes, and buckled sidewalks like broken saltine crackers. A little rivulet ran along one edge. I weighed staying in D.C. versus looking for adventure abroad. Then, I thought of a friend who said she was moving to Iowa (with a boyfriend) and what a dismal idea that is if she wants to work in our field (International Education). There are solid reasons I might voice my dissent to her but sometimes I varnish better motives with my own vocational tensions — and I know it. These are both the sheen and the stain on my opinions. I stay silent, supportive.

I noticed the rivulet again: its speed, the way it carried debris, the volume of water moving down this little side-street to a storm grate by Vista street. For a second I imagined a capsized pot, the size of a car, spilling an endless supply of water onto the street from its absurd depths. I wondered from where the stream flowed, whether from a broken water-main or an unseen mountain of snow. Only a week ago I meandered through a groove in the snow piled on both sides of every road. A week ago I inhabited, I wandered, I explored a different scene in the same place.

Kirby's Dreamland Villain (cute, stationary)The water disappeared into the curb inlet and I went left, again, along Vista. On Vista my hooking eyes caught dozens of visions. Dropped from some unknown tree were a multitude of… spikey-balls? A fruit or nut of an unknown species, they looked all at once like giant cockle-burs or wilted, alien flowers. They reminded me of cartoon maces or generic, stationary foes from NES video games: “Kirby’s Dreamland” and its ilk.

Mines at sea.Before I could unhook them, they all turned into choices. I could step on them intentionally, with glee or curiosity or even sadness or, rather, I could fix my gaze on the distance and allow myself to trample them like wine-grapes. I could have embraced them, could have allowed them to happen, but I avoided them. Which choice of hundreds could be best? What if they really belonged to someone else and I ruined them? What if they made a mess on my shoes? These multitude futures, I decided, need to be left as they are until I could be certain. I want to come back with a machine, like the ones at the Bethlehem co-op, and pour all of them down its diesel-scented gullet and turn them into oil: dream-oil. Like olives, that cannot be eaten unless they have cured or are processed, I left them all alone. I did not pick one up, because I could not be sure that one of them was not my dream, or a dream I might regret, or…

Each spine became a button, a trigger-ball floating in the stream of my life. No, I did not touch all of those choices and their multitude of futures. They could be mines! Am I ready to explode? Am I fully qualified as the bomb? Have I practiced blowing-up enough? Can I find the time for combustion? What if my explosion isn’t as good as someone else’s… no…

A block further and many sidewalk-cracks later, I stepped in some dog-shit that I had not expected. That was probably gushing with symbolism, too, but I wish it had not gushed into the sole of my shoe. The copious, cleansing snow-piles that covered the sidewalks just a week ago succumbed to time. So I walked back to the minefield on my way to the stream. I wanted to stomp on one of those choices and see what future was inside but it was too late. Going backward, they had all turned into memories. They were all the past, now. Now, my dreams were flowing through the past. I stood on one leg, almost ready to reminisce — but how could I be sure that… how could I be… could I… how?

As I washed the dog-shit off my shoes, I wondered what what secrets bathed and clung to my shoes, what came next, and why this walk made me feel like writing…


Wrestling the Anchor: A Prologue

“I define religion at its best as a positive and effective means of relating to the mysteries that define our lives: love, death, birth, illness, marriage, and work, to name a few . . . . A twenty-first century religion sanctifies them with sacraments, rituals, sacred stories, and sometimes guardian spirits. The arts serve this kind of religion by giving us strong images of contemplation, for reflecting on life-defining mysteries, and for educating ourselves so we can live them out more creatively.”

— Thomas Moore, quoted in The Artist’s Rule: nurturing your creative soul with monastic wisdom.

anchor pendant on hat-top“I deeply appreciate the idea of religion as a means to relate to the mysteries that define and give meaning to our lives,” says Christine Valters Paintner in The Artist’s Rule. “I imagine that many readers of this book have had struggles with the institutional church and some may even have stepped outside the traditional borders.” I struggled to gain traction, studying this book last summer, but re-started a few weeks ago. It seems apropos to this season of my life. “An icon artist I know,” continues Paintner, “once described her work as ‘serving the mysteries’. I was entranced by that image, because for me the spiritual and creative journeys are not so much about growing in certainty — in many ways it is about growing less certain — as they are about learning how to move more deeply into the heart of mystery, into the great unknowing” (Paintner, 2011; pg30).

One object of contemplation is the anchor pendant I wear. My cousin’s four-year-old pointed at the space atop my sternum and declared, “you drive boats!” Systems of meaning hang from the end of my chain, conjured of others’ understandings. My therapist interrogated that same space: “You’re wearing your anchor necklace again; you had stopped wearing it, when your job ended. Why do you suppose you’re wearing it again, on your first day of graduate school?” Signs dangle all around, with or without reference to my interpretations (or intentional lack thereof).

People ask what the anchor means: friends, strangers; honestly, I intended to explore the symbol months ago. At first I forbade myself to wear it until I defined it. After a few weeks, I wore it whenever possible so that people would keep asking, forcing me to improvise answers. I stumble over myself, over competing images and stories as well, in search of the best entry-point. Once again, a classmate asked me just a minute before our course in “Global & Multicultural Education”. Demurring subtly, I said it was a long story. Though my precise words are forgotten, I made vague allusions to a universal humanism, something with the fragrance of non-committal agnosticism. At about that time, our professor called the class to order… and passed around boxes of crayons. She wanted us to sketch a symbol to represent ourselves — in hindsight, an object that contemplates identity. Identity is a major theme of this course, surely of my nebulous career aspirations as well, and the weekly dialogue journals I completed for this class opened an unexpected space for my own interrogations of the spaces over, beneath, and around that anchor pendant. My classmate and I made eye-contact; she smiled.

“Well, we already know what I’m going to do…” I whispered, then laughed softly. Brandishing a purple crayon, I began by weaving the curves of a treble-clef onto my blank sheet. I threaded an Arabic word through the top loop of my G-clef to form a cross-bar, then hung two curving arms and flukes, like a sea-anchor, from the clef’s tail — below its invisible staff-lines. It was a semiotic chimera. As our time expired, I began to draw a bright light atop of my personal symbol in yellow crayon…

To be Continued…