Friday, April 29, 2016

Glimpsing Death...on a Near Horizon

I feel like I’ve showered in pure water. No residue. No need for drying. Or for clothes.
I will be embraced. Wrapped inside the day and the hour, eventually brought home again.
The day is long. The day revolves around the day, and around me and my thoughts that cannot be contained. And why should they be. The world isn’t a closed vessel. It spills endlessly. We are creatures meant to spill out and to spill in.
Maybe this non-death is a reminder to me of how messy life is, is meant to be, not to be contained in mind or the flesh. Won’t stay inside the lines. Won’t stay neat, polite, presentable.
On the other hand, always ready, prepared or not. 
What can my ear hear, what can my eye see if taken off their leashes? Where will my feet take me if taken off of leashes and out of shoes, away from the concept of leash, away from thinking about shoes, and socks and paved pathways, and unpaved ones, even the conceit of walking.
The animal inside us moves, it sees, it eats what its tastes guide it to, unapologetic to life for ingesting life, for loving the taste so much it licks the lips clean. That natural ecology of longing.
The universe just keeps opening up. Maybe that’s what I was learning , though I wasn’t thinking of learning, of getting anything right, except not to leave anyone out, thinking I’d forgotten how good those stolen moments were, how closely we touched on those uncalendared days that we didn’t know were passing from time and even from memory, but leaving a mark always, as messy humans do, as unblaming hearts and unanalysing minds will do.
That’s what life is, that holding onto life forgets, but that death knows and reminds and reminds and retells until we will learn it.
Don’t worry about the shoes, or even the walking. Just being the animal inside.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Freight Train

There are only a few surviving stories in my family about my mother’s preacher father, in his early, drifter days, before he got religion. It’s said that some things about him didn’t change after the conversion; he was always a stern and serious man, full of self-respect and private thoughts. So that, though he died when I was five or six – the first death of my life – in some ways, the Grandad I knew from Sundays in church and play fighting on the living room rug was the same wandering, silent John Hardwrick of family lore.

I can’t remember now just when he was born, or what America it was he grew up in. Some of that information is scribbled somewhere, in notes from my long conversations with my Aunt Audrey. I’ll never know many of the details of his life, but I’ve always known it was a very different life, inside of a very different world.

What I think of most often when I remember Grandad is the train-hopping. It was his preferred way to travel. What must that have been like, in the 1900’s or the 1910’s?

Aunt Audrey said that Grandad liked to ride on the top side of freight cars, that he would ride standing, and looking backward over the country he was travelling through. He was a casual laborer in those days, though intelligent and with some elementary education. He had a travelling companion, a life-long friend who would eventually settle down with him in Detroit. Wade – let’s call him that, as I don’t remember his name - would find himself periodically abandoned. Ever so often, he’d wake on some morning to find that my grandfather was gone. A week or two later, he’d get a telegram from him, saying he’d found work in such and such a place, and he’d set right out to rejoin him. And a few weeks or a couple of months later, the pattern would repeat itself.

It’s said that my Grandad had his spiritual awakening while train hopping. One day, as he rode along in his customary stance, looking backward from a freighter top, he received a clear message to “Sit Down!” I don’t know if it came as a voice or an un-beckoned inspiration, nor what he thought was happening, but he promptly sat, and the next moment he heard and felt the whoosh of a tunnel as the train passed through. Had he taken time to consider that voice, that message, it would have been his last act in life. As it was, he gave it much consideration later, and it transformed his life.

I’ve always thought it would be a thrill to hop a train, but never seriously expected I would do so. The closest I’ve come to sharing my Grandad’s experience is through the hitch-hiking I did in earlier years. That came about as a convenient expedience rather than a choice for adventure. A trucker picked me up near a bus stop on a country road and carried me into Holly Springs, Mississippi. And for several years thereafter it was my own preferred way to travel. When I peer past the romanticism of Grandad’s image, I image that his train-hopping may have come about in a similar way. I like to think that he and I shared the same feeling of freedom as we travelled, that his miles of rails brought him the same sense of overcoming life’s ordinary limitations that I felt on the open highways. Maybe peering off the top of a freight car was something like staring out at the desert night and hearing a single approaching car when it was yet miles away.

When I was approaching fifty, and concerned that I was entering my last days of any kind of adventuring, a colleague and I fantasized about finally hopping a train. He’d grown up with a Grandad and family lore too. He and I were working with street people and quite a few of our clients had hopped a train or two. It had become a thing among drifting youth of a certain disposition, and we were even schooled on some important do’s and do not’s. We’d been nudging our clients into taking on ambitious, outside the box type goals, to broaden their sense of what was out in the world for them, of what was possible. Why not us?

So we planned a week when we’d head west, and go as far as we could for a week before we’d turn back home by more traditional means. It felt like a perfectly stupid thing to do. And like something that would send us not so gently into the certainty of our waning years. I was newly free out of a marriage and reveling at the vast freedom of being single. My buddy was married and, for better or for worse, two weeks before our scheduled departure, his wife put her foot down. No way in Hell was he going away to hop a train. So instead, we went on a canoe trip on Lake Temagami. It was great.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Heartbeats per Page

I once came upon a theory that the human heart has a certain, more-or-less set number of heartbeats it can deliver. This number acts as an upper limit. Once you use up your allotted beats, that’s it! A belief in this theory can be developed into an argument against exercise, or any other form of exertion or excitement that gets the heart palpitating. Running for the bus, scary movies and roller-coaster rides, even orgasms, would take minutes (and cumulatively, days, months, years) off of your life span. On the other hand, regular exercise that improves conditioning has the effect of lowering one’s resting or low-activity pulse rate.

I don’t know if there’s anything to this, but it’s got me speculating about writing from a different angle. I’ve been writing my entire life. Is there a set limit on the words I have allotted to me. Will I reach a point where the words just stop coming?

My experience of how my writing has shifted over the years lends credibility to the notion of a limit on words over a period of time, if not an entire lifetime. As a student, I wrote a lot for school. But then I stopped being a student. And what happened? I began journaling. In fact, I began my first journal the very month that I dropped out of university. And – though with a fluctuating regularity – I kept journaling for decades. And then, I stopped. And the end of journaling coincides pretty closely with the time I started blogging. Actually, all this suggests not only an upper limit, but also a lower limit on words. It’s never really rung true to me, but maybe there’s something to the notion that writers write because they have to.

As one who aspired (and still do) to make a career of writing, I’ve always lamented that I write so little. But this self-assessment is based largely on valuing some writing and devaluing other writing. I’ve only had six pieces of writing make it into print, in a publication available to the public, bearing my name, for which I received compensation. That’s 2 short stories, one short-short, and three reflective essays on social issues. It hasn’t been much of a career.

But there’s been so much other writing. There are the boxes of writing bits and pieces accumulated over the years of trying to develop my skills, voice, themes. There are the many more boxfuls of material I discarded because I saw no value or promise in them. There are the hundreds, maybe thousands of computer files, some on the machine I’m using at this moment, but many abandoned with discarded, older desktops and laptops and, yes, word processors, and likely never to be opened again.

There has been lots of work-related writing, too: case notes, proposals, minutes, agendas, lesson plans, evaluations and the like. Some of this has been very important on a personal level, both to me and to my clientele, and I’m as proud of some of it as of anything else I’ve produced. This includes advocacy letters, case summaries attempting to place the arc of a client’s journey into perspective, documents weighing in on program and community issues, or responding to a court or police action and its effects.

Then, there’s the truly personal writing. The emails and letters – occasionally, a poem – to loved ones. Sometimes, I’ve written a letter that has all of me in it, and those instances are very much like the times I’ve thrown myself into a piece of fiction or a creative essay. Once, when I was trying very hard to push my writing to a higher/deeper level, and was experiencing serious self-doubt, I dreamed an entire story. I lived it as I slept, and I awoke with it fresh and vivid in my mind, and ready to pour out onto the page. Another time, while composing a letter/poem to a woman I was deeply in love with, I spent a night of drifting in and out of sleep, rising to consciousness ever so often with words and sentences and small edits. These were instances when I felt almost consumed by the act of writing, like I was disappearing into it. And yet, feeling complete, and nourished and expanded by the experience, which is perhaps what death – that final consummation – is all about.

Certainly, this side of Life is finite. There comes an end to heartbeats and to words, whether measurable or not, whether foreseeable or not. But I’m finding something beautiful here as I contemplate it. In the context of an expanding universe, can death and other endings be seen as anything other than transitions? I don’t know that it really matters. I’m not angling for a kind of pseudo-immortality here. Maybe what I am angling for is a deep resonance, connective tissue, something other than a tidy, summing up. After all, we don’t measure a lifetime by the number of heartbeats. And we don’t weigh words in isolation.