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This is my last post as Francesco. My trajectory is not entirely clear, but I know that to alter it I need to write in my public persona, the one that links to my transcripts and my email and my bank statements. I will start writing in that voice in another place very soon.

I like the voice I have developed here. I cringe at the moments when it is sullen and self-indulgent, but there are other moments when I find this voice, and this persona, to be likable. Knowing that I had indulgent readers helped.

Two things I have been reading, two novels by two friends, will send me off. The novels are very different: the first is about the deforestation of the Amazon. That book follows a couple of biologists who are collecting specimens in the rainforest, as the rainforest is being destroyed around them. There is outrage in that story, but there is also, strangely, joy— at the experience of being in a beautifully abundant place. And there is joy at the characters in the book who recognize and oppose the destruction of that beautiful, abundant place. Reading that book you recognize the writer’s simple joy at reaching out with a story. There is joy and love in that humbly proffered hand.

The other novel is about a teenager in Melahatchie, Mississippi, in 1964, 1985, and 2013. There is violence in that book too, and horror. But there is also joy: it is a love story, and the teenage girl the narrator loves has one of the best names in fiction: Shalaya Crump. The boy has a great name too: Citoyen (City) Coldson. And City’s best friend is LaVander Peeler. There is violence, and the desire to stop or slow the violence is what links these two books for me. But there is a lot of love in this book too, for its characters, and those years, and that place. There is the same, fundamental gesture of love in both novels: a gentle, proffered hand.

How do you deal with your anger, especially when it is justified? I think of that episode in the Bible when Jesus throws the moneylenders out of the temple. There’s justified anger, anger at the presence of sordid commerce in God’s house. But that’s one brief episode in a book that is mostly about love, and it tells me that if you ever explode, it better be justified and isolated. And the two books I am reading, the two novels by two friends, are helping me immensely with my struggle with anger. When you recognize outrageous injustice, you have to look at it clearly, and chronicle that injustice: no one worth listening to is telling you to look away. But you have to find a way to contemplate and feel that injustice, and also feel joy and love. That is how you live fully. It is difficult, but writing can give you the distance you need to get your head and heart around those different things, anger and love, and allow you to hold out a tentative hand. Not protruding but proffering.

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Photo of Etta JAMES

I have been working. I have returned to doing work that I felt drawn to when I was much younger, and I have felt very engaged in that work. I have a piece of (heavily edited) journalism that may come out in a few weeks; I have reconnected with my advisor from graduate school and am working with focus and energy on my dissertation again.

The struggle I am having is with community. The people who were my friends in college and graduate school many years ago are now in the middle of tremendously successful careers. They have been working, all of them, with mature, professional focus for decades. They have behaved themselves, and pushed through anxiety, loss, and exhaustion. I admire them, and I often feel bad about myself when I am confronted with the reality of their lives and successes.

But there other communities I can be part of. This one. And the community of the monstrous, who have stopped pretending.

In college a friend, one of those whose careers now makes me feel ashamed of myself, gave me “Tell Mama”, by Etta James. He gave the music to me in the form of a cassette, which I no longer own, although I would have no way of listening to it if I did still have it. But because music is now at our fingertips, I am listening to the song “I would rather go blind” while doing dishes intermittently in our kitchen. Etta James sings of learning that her lover is betraying her:

“Something told me it was over”, she sings. “When I saw you and her talking.”

Something deep down in my soul said ‘Cry, girl’

When I saw you and that girl walking around.

In another room Gwendolyn is going through her many belongings, struggling with a demon of her own— her feeling that she is the keeper of things from her family of origin’s past, things that have a magical power to keep her family happy, alive, and together. She knows that her demon makes her childlike, and that like me she is struggling to be an adult in the way that our peers are adults. But she gets sidetracked by all sorts of things: a painting from her aunt’s garage, or the t-shirt she was wearing when her family went on a picnic when she was in middle school, or a ball of yarn that she wanted to use to knit a scarf for her grandmother. At the end of the day she will have a small bag of paper recycling to throw away, mostly newspapers and mail addressed to people who used to live in our apartment.

How do you turn the way you are damaged into a form that might perk someone else up and make them feel connected? That is what she and I are trying to learn. It seems easy when I listen to Etta James sing:

I would rather- I would rather go blind, boy

than to see you walk away, see you walk away from me.

The strength it takes to simply speak your vulnerability and pain can convey more strength than weakness. I feel no shame in myself when I listen to Etta James: I feel myself straightening in my chair, and I envision walking down the street, greeting people who recognize me and Virgil with warm eyes.

meditation

What happens when you sit still? St. Francis attracted wild animals— the foxes and wolves and hawks— when he was sitting still, praying outside. When you sit still, things will approach you, things you cannot actively beckon.

When you sit still you can create something. The monastic traditions of different religions all agree on this. They have different ways of describing what you can create by sitting still by yourself, or sitting quietly still with others, but they are thematically similar: peace, understanding, love, nonviolence. I understand now that, as absurd as it sounds, meditation in solitude has an effect in the world. Not that it is a direct effect, or one that is easy to trace. But I understand now that something real is created by that serenity.

What you can’t do by yourself, no matter how peacefully you contemplate the light on the trees or the rhythms of your silence, is control what things come to you. St. Francis may not have wanted anything to approach him. When I am sitting calmly still there is something, someone, I want to approach me. But although I beckon, he won’t draw near.

When I reflect on my inability to control who and what approaches me in my moments of peaceful solitude, I feel despondent. I think about you, and the serenity you achieve. You radiate such calm and peace when you sit still that hummingbirds land on your shoulders, and tigers sprawl into sleep on branches over your head.

What happens when I sit still is meager, but it is life. An earwig falls from a leaf above me. It writhes along my leg, and I shiver and flinch. Then the bug lands, safely and alive, on the grass, and disappears from sight.

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Every morning I make coffee for Gwendolyn. I grind the beans in our kitchen and use a stovetop espresso maker for her noisette, which I bring her in bed. We have started to keep the heavy metal grate over the lone window in our bedroom open all night, although it protects us from interlopers wandering up or down the fire escape, because the light is so welcome. After I give Gwendolyn her coffee I take Virgil out for a walk in the little park next to our building, in front of the elementary school.

I used to drink my coffee in the living room, looking out our windows toward Lake Michigan. It just felt too slovenly to get back into bed on a weekday— but Gwendolyn is deeply unconflicted about this slight indulgence of hers. Whether she has been working all weekend, staying up late to grade papers, or just sleeping for twelve straight hours, she drinks her coffee in bed, every morning, with the newspaper. And as soon as he has had his breakfast Virgil leaves me to rejoin her.

Recently I have realized that drinking coffee in the morning isn’t something I need. Already before 8 am my heart is racing and I can feel myself starting to tingle, although we have not had a warm spring morning yet. When I do dishes after breakfast I fling them into the sink; we are down to one white bowl now, and all of the red pasta bowls are chipped. Gwendolyn doesn’t cook, so she hasn’t noticed that almost all of the glass storage containers we bought are gone from our cabinets.

This morning I got it right. I brought Gwendolyn her coffee, and then I drank decaffeinated tea in the white chair in our living room. I was reading when I heard her say something from the bedroom like, “There’s a hawk on the water tower!” I pressed my forehead to the window but I couldn’t see it. “Where?” I asked. “Come here!” she said.

I walked quietly to the bedroom. The hawk was on our fire escape, about six feet from where Gwendolyn was sitting. It turned its head and one eye directly toward me, and I stood still until it turned away again. The wind ruffled the hawk’s feathers and showed the red underside of its tail. Its beak looked as if it had just been sharpened: it curved toward an endlessly fine point. After about a minute the hawk flexed its legs and jumped off the fire escape. When its wings were outstretched it seemed to brush our window momentarily, just before it left us quietly alone.

Very Petrarchan.

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(Don DeLillo, in a 1982 interview with Contemporary Literature).

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Virgil

Virgil is aging. He no longer hears us when we come in to the apartment; we surprise him sleeping in our bedroom, and he struggles to stand up on his back legs when he finally sees us. He can’t go down stairs anymore, at least not confidently, so I keep my hand over his shoulders to steady him as we descend together. He wobbles from side to side a bit when we walk, and sometimes tips over when he loses his balance on a little incline in the park.

It’s getting warmer now in the city, and people are starting to sit outside, on their stoops, and in the parks, and at sidewalk cafes. They greet you with smiles, and make room for you to sit at an adjacent table, or on the same park bench. And people love to pet Virgil. 15,000 years of evolution have wired him to respond perfectly to attention: he wags his tail gently, and sits, and moans a little bit when you stop petting him. He begs for food patiently— he doesn’t jump up to steal food off your low table. (At least, he hasn’t done that in a long time.)

The people in my neighborhood are enjoying themselves, eating hotdogs and kielbasa. They are sipping cappuccinos, snacking on pizza slices, and carrying home grocery bags full of pork chops, chicken breasts, turkey burgers, and bacon-flavored potato chips. How is it that people are able to get over the nearly deranging cognitive dissonance between loving animals and eating meat? The principle is substitution: it is okay that those animals die, we think, because we provide other animals lives of enviable comfort. We love our animals; would that all animals were so lucky.

We don’t think about the animals we condemn to death because it is too horrific. We turn away— toward the generosity and affection we show our pets, and our neighbors’ pets. There is an image I happened to see, sent by an animal rights advocacy group to my email. Don’t worry, I won’t describe it, except to say this: it centers on a wheelbarrow.

Virgil has a lot of gray around his muzzle now, and he has that slight swaying in his bony back that shows his age. I remember taking him to the vet when he was about two, back when we were doing the hike around Maple Lake almost every day. The vet listened to his heart and said, “He has the deep, slow heartbeat of an athlete!” Now, sitting next to Virgil on the couch, I put my hand on his skinny side and feel his heart tick— it is still strong. He looks up when I lay my hand on him, and sees that I am not getting up, just checking in. And then he rests his head on the blanket next to me with a heavy, contented sigh.

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Colson Whitehead defines the artist as “a monster who has stopped pretending”. But what does it mean to “stop pretending”? How do you just accept your monstrosity and go through the world seven feet tall with green skin and bolts jutting out of the sides of your neck? The first thing that I fear is violating decorum by confessing things that are unseemly. But I have decided, or understood, that remaining silent about those things is not being evasive, it is simply rejecting cliche. We all have our cacodemons— I don’t need to elaborate my version of them. You know them as well as I do.

The first time I felt that I had something to hide that wasn’t the same thing everyone else was hiding was reading Laurence Perrine’s purple textbook, What is Literature? I was fifteen, and that book was assigned in my sophomore English class. It was an anthology with commentary; I don’t remember the commentary, but I started reading the poems one night in my room, and I found something I hadn’t before: calm. I immediately felt that I had to conceal what I was doing.

One night in college a friend found me in the vast library at Stanford. We were on one of several underground, dark floors; there was no one else around. I greeted him quietly, and I remember him gesturing at the gray, full bookshelves and saying wildly, “I have so many friends in here!”

I have friends you can’t see, but I am not pretending I don’t anymore. Not that you can tell that when I am standing in front of you in line at the Daily Grind; you can’t see past my bony, four-foot long arms sticking way out of the tattered ends of my blazer, and you avoid eye contact as we negotiate the little milk and sugar station next to the cashier. But you relax a bit when you see me giggling to myself over my copy of The Rachel Papers, and you watch me get down on my hands and knees so that Dolly, the owner’s pit bull, can lick my face.