formative influences

i had just started dating This Guy, when he suddenly dropped his lead. i didn't quite get it at first. i couldn't think of anything i'd done--how could he reject me without logical grounds? naturally, i talked to his friends before i talked to him. but the point of his continued absence eventually made itself evident.

still, i wanted to hear him say it. so i told him, "i still have your book. come up and get it." when we were in my room, i looked him in the eye and, cutting right to the heart of the matter, i asked him,

"do you not want to kiss me anymore?"

his shoulders hunched, his chin lowered, and he looked back at me with the caught-but-you-can't-prove-anything look of a little boy standing next to a broken vase.

"i don't particularly want to, or not want to," quoth the prevaricating bastard.

i remember feeling a little bit sorry for him, but also impatient. i also remember thinking, "what's wrong with you? you were such a confident man up till now. at least be confident about why you don't want to be with me anymore."

though i don't remember verbatim what was said next, i do remember that i was honest--a rare feat of courage. and that he said he didn't want to be in a relationship that year. and that i told him i wasn't trying to argue him into it, but i liked being with him.

the only other quotation i remember was his saying,

"well, what did you want out of it?" It being the noncommittal pseudo-relationship we'd had, up to that point.

to me, the question made no sense. what did i want out of it? i had never thought in those terms, not once. i hadn't gone looking for a relationship with anyone; if anything, i had planned on not having one that year, too. but i liked being around him--he made me feel sexy, and reckless. being around him made all the crazy things i wanted seem possible. he lived in such a way as whatever he wanted, he went out and took; i liked being close to that.

what did i want out of it? as if i'd counted the minutes that i invested with him, balancing them against the probability of a return. as if the time i'd spent with him was like the time we spend waiting for the waitress to bring the food we've ordered. as if he thought i'd been putting him through a test and he was defending himself from failing it. so strange, when for me the whole experience had been nothing more than an intoxicating draught of freedom.

but not quite freedom, i guess. because after that night, throughout days and months without him, i felt like all the crazy things i wanted were only crazy. taking what i wanted left me alone in trying to enjoy it. feeling sexy made me nothing more than a candle smoldering in a hallway.

what did i want out of it? i answered him, after a moment,

"a close friend."

it seemed ridiculous, when it came out of my mouth. true, but ridiculous. because, as he responded, "that wasn't what was happening." that was true, too. i hadn't noticed, because i had so enjoyed becoming who i really wanted to be. and, as i discovered, i wasn't brave enough to do it alone.



dear J.M.,

there are certain situations, or settings--whatever you want to call them--that unfailingly remind me of you.

two nights ago was one of them: i'd just come home from running, it was nearly sunset and a little bit humid outside, my housemate was making the same kind of gorgeous and simple dinner i always associate with your house...and i guess that's what did it. suddenly i felt like i was back in annapolis, just starting another school term. the weather, the look and smell of the house, the feeling of coming home...those are all inseparable from memories of the M. house.

right now, it's about 10am on a saturday morning. it's chilly, the fog hasn't burned off yet. i took my tea into the back screened porch, wrapped myself up in a blanket, heard the birds shrilling, and this song by alexi murdoch came on...and suddenly there i was, in your living room.

i don't remember ever listening to alexi murdoch, in particular, at your house. i know there were several times i was wrapped up in a blanket there, drinking tea, on foggy weekend mornings but also on winter evenings and fall afternoons and every hour in the day, in the year.

so it's not a specific memory i'm recalling. instead it's an overall feeling that my brain, or my heart (whichever organ is responsible for these things), has given a one-to-one correspondence with you, your family, and your home. it's a feeling provoked by some combination of the following factors: candlelight, rows of old books on the shelf, the smell of lavender, a certain kind of guitar-heavy music that conjures up visions of driving through foggy mountains or migrating birds, the chill of early morning or late afternoon, and (always) the feeling of coming to rest for a while.

i love it when it shows up, this memory/sensory association that defies time or reason. my life will be so much poorer, if it ever changes.

i love you.


like a rolling stone

First you've got to get in the shit. And then maybe you can come back and sing it. (Keith Richards, Life)

This quote makes it sound like Keith, at 66, has pulled out of the game. Evidence pro: He wrote an autobiography. (It tolls for thee, Keith Richards.) Evidence contra: he's talking with Mick about getting together for another round. (Though Stones reunions have kind of become like my grandpa's college reunions, in that the number of people who find these events significant is rapidly decreasing.)

My faith in medical science might be overreaching, but I can't help protesting against resignation so early. Writing a book called Life at the age of 66? From Keith Richards, especially--the amount and intensity of what he has survived should promote a sanguine expectation of staying in the shit, at least for another ten years.

Or could it be that he's tapping out? Maybe he's eager for the blanket and slippers.

Socrates asserts that the unexamined life is not worth living. (Most distinctly in the Apology, if you wanted to know.) But does unrestricted examination qualify as a life? He didn't say the "unexamined self", you notice. If you stop being the self you were while you were living, life keeps happening around you. You have to keep up if you're going to examine it. Socrates also said that he only knew that he knew nothing (Republic). Does that not indicate that life well-examined should result in doubts of your examination's validity? ἔμοιγε δόκει.

The smart guys in school used to infuriate me with the way they sat apart from everyone, discussing in mutters and making notes in their Moleskines, responding only to each other's remarks during class discussion. Once satisfied that you're on the right track, you stop looking around, and you're liable to miss things. God help me if I spend all my time on hindsight, at the expense of seeing.

Is it unavoidable that we should live only the first eighty percent of our days, and resign the last twenty percent to examination? Couldn't we do both forever? Or is that privilege reserved for heaven?


the truest sentence you know

i asked K to remind me to write today. it won't just happen on its own. there is prayer, and there is faith, but there is also faithfulness, which is work. i mean to have some discipline.

she reminded me. she cheered for me. i sat down to work in the sun room.

it has been raining for days--a nuisance and a miracle, in this part of the world. the hills look like mountains, when it's raining. it makes a voyage out of going to work at six in the morning, so that it's almost a pleasure.

the sun room is full of tobacco-stained light. the couch is full of pillows and a blanket. fresh off the impetus of K's cheering, i stand in the doorway and think, "how did i get here?" i don't understand.

ernest hemingway said that the cure for writer's block is to write the truest sentence you know. but i have never yet found that sentence. does that mean that i don't know what i believe? how upsetting--i might have writer's block forever.

after an hour or so, as i stared at the retarded grunts i had accomplished, shades fell over my mind. i went to sleep.

i woke up feeling as if years had passed. i woke up staring at my Bible. and i thought, "i need to understand." i can't write until i do understand. i'm going on strike.

there's a verse i read a few months ago in jeremiah that says "let him who boasts boast in this: that he understands and knows me."

writing is the most boastful activity that i know. i'm pretty sure that is why i don't tell people who i am--i feel that i don't deserve it. and i don't understand anything.

i pulled myself off the couch. in the other room, K is sleeping on the other couch. her hair is splayed across the pillow. last night she went to the emergency room, one more time. i don't understand. i shake my fist, though timidly, at God. i don't understand. and i need to. i can't write fiction until i start understanding something about life. this isn't a strike. it's a handicap. i'm crippled, so it doesn't matter if i want to get across the room or across the world.

i've found the truest sentence i know. but it hasn't cured anything except my ambition.


magic words, vol. 10

Those who pride themselves on not being shallow run the risk of drowning in themselves.


according to c. h. spurgeon...

"Twenty miles onward is easier than to go one mile back for the lost evidence."


sometimes prayer is like those souvenir coin machines. you put in your twenty-six cents and the gears start to turn, and the arms and levers begin to pump behind the glass, and you watch as the whole mechanism churns and creaks, and you try for a minute to find where the penny is. but the trick is practiced and ancient, and it hides the penny from view, and with nothing else to look at, you become engrossed in the mechanics, in the shine of the brass wheels, in the size and strength and intricacy of the parts necessary to melt and press just this one, insignificant coin. you start wondering about who invented this technology and why--was it only for entertainment value, or does it ever perform some greater task? was this a source of genuine wonder for people at an earlier point in history? how much of it is really for the sake of pressing the penny, and how much is just for show?

and then the gears stop, and the penny drops out, and you look at its stretched and flattened backside longer than the newly embossed side, because more fascinating than what the penny has become, is comparing that to what it used to be.


why life is funny

it's one of the more obvious statements you can make, and i'd discourage its use. but sometimes the truth of it presses so heavily that you have to either laugh, or scream, or exhale it. life is funny. it's a fucking gut-buster.

not long ago, while i was in the middle of a busy afternoon at work, i learned from a coworker that i had somehow become the center of a really pristine little scandal, as childish and cute and nearly innocuous as a kitten yet to be declawed. it remains an utter mystery to me how this rumor ever got started, since i tend not to confide in coworkers. i traced it from my source to her source, the floor manager, who informed me of the breadth that this scandal had reached--"everybody knows about it," she told me, "everybody's shocked."

"it's not true!" i told her. it was so untrue that i was laughing as i told her.

it's all one, her shrug indicated. "well, everybody thinks it is, and they're shocked."

i learned that her source was the general manager, with whom i have the most spartan of all my work relationships. his speculation was the funniest part of all to me--if i had anything of an intimate nature to confide, i would sooner whisper it in the ear of the geriatric pervert who sits in a camp chair on the sidewalk outside our building, sipping old-fashioneds and listening to smooth jazz while assessing the curvatures of women passing by, than to my high-strung, machinistic GM.

so i enjoyed another hearty laugh and assured her that it wasn't true, at all, and that if she heard the rumor again she should let the tattling parties know the latest and final word on the subject. i thought about telling the other person that the rumored scandal involved--because, of course, there was another person--but i decided against it; i simply hugged it to myself.

upon leaving work, which i did just as the sun was setting, i came around the corner and saw two men working on a boat. this sight was remarkable not only because it was on an urban side street, with no bodies of water larger than a parking lot puddle for thirty miles in any direction, but also because the boat was an arresting hue of turquoise green, and the men were an oddly matched pair--a guy of about forty with strong shoulders and sandy hair, and an overweight Asian guy with protuberant moles on his neck and a certain cast to his eyes that i took to suggest some feebleness of mind. (first impressions are necessarily judgmental.)

i liked the color of the boat, so i let my head turn to admire it as i walked past. of course i smiled politely when i met the eyes of these men working on it. but as i passed, i heard, "hello! excuse me!" i turned around and the feeble-minded Asian man lumbered toward me.

(i can't help it--i thought, "rabbits!" and felt a little bit of panic--blame it on john steinbeck.)

"what's your name?" he asked me. his voice was deep and thick.

"my name's bird," i said. "what's yours?"

"kingsley," he said. in addition to his moles, he seemed to have a few polished wooden claws, as long as my little finger, protruding in a pattern from the base of his neck. i can't explain that one--i didn't want to stare.

but he was staring, like a puppy at a pork chop being dangled over its head. "you're a beautiful woman," he murmured to me.

i almost started to laugh. "thank you," i said. "that's kind of you to say." and then i felt about ready to pop, so i turned around and booked it to my car.

i was trying to explain this to a friend i saw later that day. i said, "life is funny," but when he asked me why, i couldn't tell him--not completely. i couldn't tell him that i have spent my life feeling inconsequential and ugly, and to be confronted with big Lichtensteinian scenes indicating the contrary was absolutely ticklish to me. my insecurities were the backbone of the whole story, the canvas behind the Ben-Day dots; without them, the story was incomplete.

this is what turned life's funny on its edge, that summer evening, when hilarious began to be ironic, when the petals fell, when the rust spots started to show.

how we appear, and how we are treated, are delicate and dangerous things, to be sure. but the things we cannot bring ourselves to tell are the most dangerous of all. they are weapons we can only use on ourselves.

magic words, vol. 9

"What was your mother? A lioness!" (Ezekiel 19.2)


left behind

i can remember this piano recital that i performed in, as a kid. i was probably eleven years old. we had just moved to a new city and i was studying under a teacher whose approach was way more intense than any i'd encountered before. he wore black horn-rimmed glasses, and always a white oxford shirt and pants that appeared as if he'd slept in them. his hair was black and unruly, and his body was lank and sort of unwashed-looking. i can remember seeing the cavity of his pale chest through the nearly transparent shirt, and thinking, "what kind of man is that?" he had two kids, little wisps of black hair and olive skin that better resembled their Taiwanese mother, with whom he invariably bickered if she made a rare appearance. the kids, too, he would maniacally hustle out of the practice room whenever they ventured down to spy on his students.

i can't remember his last name, which i'm sure is what i called him by. i know his first name was david because i would hear my mom discussing him with my dad, as in "bird doesn't like david very much" or "david's students do competitions and get scholarships." she was right in both instances. david's students were mostly little prodigies, the kind that TV movies get made about later, cipher-faced urchins whose fingers ran like those wind-up Matchbox cars, and stopped as abruptly when they were through with their concertos as if they'd run into a wall. and i did not like him.

he always seemed occupied by something outside of my piano lesson. i can remember that he never looked me in the eyes. his arms would windmill broadly as he shouted "more! more!", in direction that i was supposed to play louder, and then he would hunker over like Quasimodo and murmur "less! less!" it seems to me now that he was more occupied with the technique than with the song itself, though i couldn't have said so at the time. i would only have said that piano lessons were a drag and that mozart's fantasia in d minor was not, and was unlikely ever to be, a personal favorite.

fantasia in d minor was the song he elected for me to play at the recital, which meant that not only did i have to be good at it, but i also had to memorize it.

i'd been through dozens of recitals by age eleven. i didn't get stage fright, and if i messed up the performance it was because i got distracted or bored. i liked the applause, and the cookies at the end of the event, and i always brought a book to read during the ages and ages it took to give the rest of the students their moment in front of the camcorders. nonetheless, i dreaded this recital because i really hated playing fantasia in d minor, probably for no other reason than that it was in a minor key and had some tricky runs that david's ungentle persuasion had set me against ever playing correctly. if i got the fingering right, the rhythm was off, and if i fell into the right rhythm, my fingers buckled like a foal's knees. and the pall over the whole affair was that i didn't care, and felt the guilt that i ought to.

the recital was in the small auditorium of a high school or community college. there were dark blue velvet curtains, and the piano was not as grand as the one in david's studio. i sat beside my mom in the back rows, and propped my feet up on the seat in front of me; as the first pocket-sized soloist took the bench, i opened my book. i don't remember anything else--what i had been made to wear, what book i was reading, how i knew when it was my turn, or even setting my fingers to the piano--until i was about sixteen bars into the performance.

i can recall the slow revelation, as i was playing, that this was not only a piece, but a song. i saw that it was a very lyrical and emotional song. without knowing what in it was moving me, or why it never had moved me before, i suddenly felt myself caring about the space between the phrases, about the pressure with which my fingers fell from one note to the next, and wanting urgently to express a "more" and a "less" that had nothing to do with windmilling arms and the inscrutable lenses that shied from a direct gaze. suddenly, i wanted to know what the music was trying to say, and convey its voice faithfully. i wanted to agree with it, to cooperate in making the beautiful thing hidden in the notation i had memorized.

but then came the long, cascading runs; my heart sank. i hadn't cared, and i wasn't worthy to play them right, and they were going to let me down now--justly, because i had let them down. i limped down the network of intervals, shuffled through to the end of the piece, took my perfunctory bow with the browbeaten attitude of the prodigal son, and went back to my seat.

i found out later that the recital had, in fact, been a competition, and that david had told my mom i should have won it if i'd practiced more. as it was, some eight-year-old Taiwanese kid took the scholarship money home. my mom asked why i hadn't practiced more.

i told her, "i did practice. i just don't like him."

also, i wanted to say, i hadn't known there was money riding on my performance. and i hadn't known anything of what mozart or d minor meant, until it was too late.


resting restless

It was a strange day, full of puzzling gifts, occasioned by helpless gratitude. So I had to wander. I woke up just before sunset, not knowing that I'd fallen asleep, and I felt the imperative inside me. I tied on my worn-out shoes and ran from the house.

I walked eastward, up the hill, over the freeway bridge. The sun was turning everything the color of ripe fruit; all the windows looked like stained glass. I smelled about twenty different dinners as I wove between 26th and 28th streets, and I saw the TV sets playing flat faces in flat colors. Across the ravine, the park had turned into Shangri-La, black and mysterious.

I love going out to wander when I know I'll be caught by the twilight. When the day exhales its final breath in a haze of car exhaust and jasmine fragrance, when the lights in the kitchens come on, when I can walk down the yellow line of the street with impunity, when the streets are so quiet you can hear people playing the piano from blocks away.

It turned dark when I turned on 30th Street and headed south, doubling back on my route rather than going in a complete circle, because I wanted to see the same neighborhood from a different angle. The bars were opening up; the back patio of Station Tavern was lit with a string of bulbs and children were playing under the tables; couples were walking their dogs. I saw a church for lease--a Mission-style edifice in white stucco, with green frames on the doors and windows. A jeep passed me, playing ranchero music at a respectful volume. The sky was lapis blue, like the time I got lost in a suburb of Buenos Aires, walking for miles trying to find my uncle's church, certain only that it was somewhere east of where I'd started from. The sky kept getting darker and darker blue, but it never turned black, not even when the stars were all out. And then I found that I'd passed it, and I turned back around and came in through the front door, and one of the girls ran to tell my uncle, who betrayed his relief only through the slight widening of his eyes when he saw me.

When I turned west again on A Street, I saw a square loft built over the roof of a house, and then I was on the terrace of the Cooles' house in Castle Comfort, in Dominica, in the Caribbean, surrounded by palm trees and banana trees, eating stewed breadfruit and tomatoes, smelling the sulfur that bubbled under the hillside as the dormant volcano began to pulse in the evenings, listening to the tambourine-punctuated music of the church at the bottom of the mountain, as their nightly revival meeting gathered steam. I saw Dr. Cooles dipping packaged wafers in his decaffeinated instant coffee, murmuring in assent as Sandra told me things about their life there, and the life they had left behind in England. I saw the faint light illuminating the spines of their thousands of books, ranked along the indoor walls as thickly as the vines that climbed around the house.

And as I came to the crest of the hill and began to make the descent toward 14th Street, I was suddenly in a place that is not past, but somewhere forward. I was on a porch, a wide front porch with low eaves, and I was bending over something--maybe a stereo, because the music from Buena Vista Social Club was playing. I had a white dress, like the one I tried on yesterday in the store, and my hair was tied up in the same scarf I was wearing, and there were earrings dangling under it like unripe fruit. There was light inside the house, and I was waiting for someone to come out, to join there me on the porch. I stood up and looked inside to see if someone was coming yet.

I love walking over the freeway at dusk, or at night. Any bridge is a good place when the sun goes down. It's a place to be still and absorb the motion of something else. I remember the Williamsburg Bridge at dusk, and also the Pont Alexandre III. No matter where I am, or where I am in my head, a bridge at nightfall feels like home. I can't, for the life of me, tell you why.

Something wonderful must be happening tonight, because in my apartment building courtyard, someone is playing the harmonica.