Saturday, July 17, 2010

Thinking backwards

It was in a book on meditation I read over twenty years ago. It recommended that at the end of a day, you review your day in reverse, putting events in reverse order. Like putting the movie of your day into reverse, rewinding from actually laying down, to what you did before bed, sucking back the toothpaste-laden spittle ad laying it back onto the brush, and so forth. You’re to do this all the way through your day, finally ending with your waking up that morning, your entire day ahead of you and behind you at once. In essence, it was and exercise in thinking backwards. The book acknowledged that it would be difficult at first, but promised that (with regular daily practice) it would get easier.

And now, twenty plus years later, I still try to practice this exercise in frustration from time to time, with the same lackluster result. I can go over the past five minutes with no problem, but my mind wants to jump back to getting up that morning, and go forward from there. The author of the book noted that this would be your natural inclination; to move backwards to a point and then go forward from there—but that you were to resist this temporal temptation. But I find it’s like walking backwards while trying to resist the urge to peek back over your shoulder to see where you’re going. It’s cheating and defeats the whole purpose.

The idea is personified in the legend of Merlin. Part of the Arthurian legend was that Merlin lived his life in reverse, so that Merlin met the child Arthur when he was an old man. The longer Arthur knew him, the younger Merlin became. This anachronistic idea baffles me. For, if you met someone that lived their life in reverse, they would know you before you met them, having seen you and known you already in your old age, and being already aware of everything that would happen to you. But the day would come, years into your future, on your last day of knowing your dear old friend, when he. Looking younger than you have ever known him, would not know you. This would be the day when, living in reverse, he would be first meeting you. And while in the present the wise old man would seem sage and knowledgeable, having lived through everything that will happen to you, the longer you know the man, the less he would know about you, and in fact, the less he would know. You’d have no shared memories, save those either you or he has not lived yet. It would therefore seem less a basis for a lasting relationship, and more like a basis for an Alzheimer's diagnosis.

And that’s the frustration of looking at life in reverse. It’s against our view of time, of our relationship to the universe, to the world, and to each other. Yet it’s supposed to be a good basis, meditatively speaking, method of reviewing your life. Maybe it’s only expanding the experience to greater than a one day that’s problematic, and makes it too big for me to wrap my head around. But, at the same time, there seems a compunction to stretch the exercise into larger, Merlin-esque, perspective. I think it was Socrates who said “A life unexamined is not worth living.” Or something of the sort. Yet everyday we make life out of overcoming our mistakes, and putting them behind us. And, to some lesser degree, forgetting, erasing and burying them as if they never happened.

In that sense, a life examined in a meaningful way is a life you have to live, in some ways, in reverse. A life examined is one that requires you to imagine not only spitting the toothpaste back onto the brush, but also squeeze it back into the tube. And that’s hard as hell to do. And, at the end of the day, it’s not a lot of fun.

Okay, so thinking backwards can be an interesting, albeit difficult, exercise. It can be frustrating. But I still feel like there’s something worthwhile in that exercise. That’s why I keep working at it, from time to time. When I remember to try. I’m trying to get better at it, certain (for some odd reason) hat there is somewhere to go with it; that there is some “there” there. But it’s something I don’t know, really, how to do.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

With Drawn

I pick up my pencil to draw...and put it down again. Because to pick up a pencil I need an eraser—I can’t put a line down unless know I can erase it. I can only speak with certainty those lines that I know I can obliterate.

My thin graphite line is wandering, feeling around the outside of my imagination, afraid to poke into or describe it with certainty. To describe with certainty is to commit, and that’s terrifying, because that line might be the wrong line. That wandering grey shade that held promise within its wooden cocoon could fall flat once expressed. Lying there, naked and exposed on the paper, it may want to cover itself and wish itself into another position. It may scream to be back in its comfort zone just a quarter inch to the right, or cry for the lost potential as a line with an entirely different vanishing point. Putting down the wrong line means building a false, distorted structure on the paper of my mind, creating a grotesque nightmare-scape instead of the world I intended to imagine and describe.

The wrong line then becomes all I can think about, dominating my eyes and my head and my hand until it is all I can see, and I can draw nothing else. The line that was once mine but suddenly is no more, screams about the once white surface of the page, darkening and creating chaos, trying to digging into itself for cover, and crossing over itself, in its frantic directionless-ness. Under its weight, the paper crumbles under and into my hand, and flies away, to join a hundred of its kind, wasted for want of an eraser, lost, and abandoned.

So I need my eraser. For the power to create, in me, only exists if it walks hand-in hand with the power to destroy.

The eraser is power. It eliminates uncertainty, through its magical promise of redoing. Through the grace of its forgiveness, I find confidence. Where my line was frenetic,and searching, now it is daring. Where once it was lost, now it is exploring, and trailblazing, into territory that is new, yet familiar. My pencil is transformed from a mindlessly wandering divining rod, dousing for some hint of creativity, into Harry Potters hand selected wand, casting spells that I only vaguely and second handedly connected to.

Amazingly, having the eraser means using the eraser less. Like a child who cannot sleep without his pacifier-it is not to be used throughout the night, but as a periodic touchstone of security, allowing me to drift off me to where it is safe and secure, and familiar, yet as mysterious as a dream not yet dreamt.

One day I may have the line that is confident without the promise of erasure. One day I may recognize the eraser for what it is; the false confidence of Dumbo’s magic feather, or worse, the hidden double-edged sword of the monkey’s paw. But until then, I need my eraser.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The football hold

The football was old, and its leather alternately softened with age and hardened, crackled with wear and use and the dampness of its home in the garage. But as Jake took it in his hand, he didn’t grip it as he was taught on the high school football field, folding the laces into the bend of his second knuckle and curling fingers gently but firmly around the pigskin. Instead, he took it and laid it in the crook of his arm, one end of the cone held gingerly in cradling fingers, the other nestled into the crook of his elbow. And he began to rock it. It was a slow, gentle motion, like the swell of the sea on a clam lake on a July morning. And in that instant, the football was not a football, but his first born child, born just hours ago, and held for the first time.

He remembered that feeling, coming as it did after hours of labor and culminating with a ceasarean birth. She had been the first to hold the child, as was her right, after the work she put into bringing him into the world. She held him on her bare chest, touching him gently to keep him positioned at he simultaneously rooted and took in this new world. He had cried only once on entering this strange realm, where the light was white and yellow and not at all tinged red, not filtered by blood and skin and muffled by layers of skin and tissue and wrapped within the ever-present and comforting regularity of an external heartbeat.

By all rights, he should have been terrified. He had every right to scream and howl for being ushered in so unceremoniously—hours of movement and increasing constriction, enveloped by an arms-reach universe that once provided for all his needs, and now seemed determined to bind and move him against his will.

But on release, on being born, he was neither angry nor resentful, nor even afraid. He looked curious. He took in every blurry shape through eyes that had not, by any scientific standard, yet learned to see. This fresh explorer in a world he never made took it all in, and sought more.

The baby craned his head toward the familiar sound of his mothers voice, and moved it at an odd angle to try and look behind him for the newly unbuffered sound of his father. He swiveled in motions that were at once slow and jerky, robotic and uncertain, but with intent. He moved in directions this new neck, with its new and untested muscles, would allow, trying to see, to take it all in, even as the nurses bundled and wrapped, poked and prodded, and made to take him away.

His job as father, from that point, was not to hold the child, but to shadow him. With a final squeeze of his wife’s hand as they took her away to recovery, he moved to follow this fresh life that would share his name, just brought into this world,

The football brought it all back. Because that was the way he had learned to hold his son , the first time he was able. They called it “the football hold,” with the back of the infant’s head held gently in hand, and the forearm supporting his back. Stubby, fat-laden legs straddled each side of the arm at the elbow. A second hand held and steadied the bundled mass against the arm. And with the baby thus held, the father could gently rock the infant by swaying the arm, a living cradle of fleshy warmth and comfort. That was how it was described to him, and what he had practiced with the hard rubber dummy he’d held in birthing class that reminded him of the actual football for which the hold was named.

But the real thing had been quite different. The first time he held the baby, their baby, their son, it was nothing like hard leather. It was soft, and breathing, and so unbelievably light. It seemed fragile, and so delicate. He barely dared touch the infant for fear of bruising him, like an over ripe tomato whose flesh might melt and bruise and break under the pressure of tactile contact.

But Jake took the baby. The nurse handed the baby to Jake that first time gently, but with a practiced certainty that only someone who had handled many babies could manage. She moved in such a way that her hands both held the baby and also moved Jake’s hands into position to do the same. For a split second, they both held the infant. Then it was Jake, alone.

And Jake took the baby with a fear and trepidation that only first-time fathers can know. He held the head, the skull, the fragile vase at the core of this small things being. He felt the weight of the body on his bare right forearm, imagining he could feel the baby’s tiny little ribs and spine even through the layers of clothing and blanket that surrounded it. And he held his left hand atop the baby, just over the ribcage, further imaging he could feel each impossibly tiny structure of its breastbone. And Jake felt him breathe. And breathe again. And on the third breath is when Jake himself remembered to do so, as well.

“It’s called the football hold,” the nurse said, her smiling eyes darting back and forth protectively, between father and son. No dropped baby’s on her watch. “Because you’re cradling him like you would if you were running down the fifty yard line.”

Jake looked up and smiled, tearing his eyes from the baby’s puzzled, searching face for the merest fraction of a second, before returning. In another life, he would’ve corrected her, jumped laughingly on the premise that anyone would run down the fifty-yard line. You run across the fifty yard line, toward the opposite teams goal. That kind of verbal error, one which spoke to a lack of knowledge about a sport he was so familiar with, would not have been allowed to pass. But that was another life, where things like football, and the lawn, and what kinds of books you read and where you went to college were important. This was a new life. And there was only one thing of tantamount importance in this new life. And he was holding it in his arms, in the football hold.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

One page autobiography

The exercise: Create a one-page autobiography.


Does it need to be a given that I was born? It’d be nice if it was a surprise. I was a surprise, coming into a family of five siblings, each of which, my mother had sworn, would be her last. After me she made certain of it, with an additional procedure she referred to as “having her tubes tied,” and the significance of which would not hit me for decades. So, I was born into a large family, as an only child. The sibling above me, a brother, was in high school when I was born. My oldest brother was a Junior in college. And by the time I was old enough to even be cognisant of having siblings, they were all gone—other states, other countries, other realities, entire.

Is it significant that I grew up, went to school? That part should be boring and trite, except for the part about my being part of a pilot program, built on the heels of the forced-bussing-into-Boston era. The METCO program allowed Springfield youth to be bussed out to the suburbs of Southwick, Indian Orchard, and in my case, East Longmeadow. So maybe that’s significant, in that I was an only child who, on top of that, did not socialize with any of the kids I went to school with. I grew up with kids around my neighborhood, friends, until they went off to local other schools, and I went off to my hour-long bus ride to a town where the only people of color were bussed in from out-of-town, on what the other kids called a “mental bus. Maybe it’s meaningful to note that my best friend and next door neighbor was lost to drugs before we were both out of high school, and how that makes me wonder to this day, who him and not me?” And maybe suspect that mental bus was at least part of the reason. Mental-ly, I recall that period as incredibly happy, because of a gift I was given that was also a curse—to be aware that I was at an age when anything was possible, and in fact, likely. Like the freedom of dreaming and knowing that you are in a dream. Nothing is frightening, and the only dark certainty is that the time is finite, and will certainly end.

Maybe it’s important to note that I went to college? Maybe not. After all, I wasn’t the first one in my family to go to college. My other siblings went to get degrees in chemistry, in education, in management, in law. But I was the first one to go to art school. That should be significant, and in retrospect seems impossible, given my family. How can someone spend that much money on an education whose stated end isn’t even guaranteed to end up in a successful, pre-ordained career? In school, I found plenty of examples of students whose families had tons of money to allow them to move majors, and even squander talent while Mom and Dad footed the bill. I spend weeks living on peanut butter and ramen noodles, or packets of hit cocoa and candied orange slices, when the budget allowed for variety. And learning art.

It’s important to try and sift through the stuff that I learned later, and that I didn’t know at the time, but it’s nearly impossible to sift it out. Like trying to distill water from kool-aid after it’s mixed. Everything is candy-colored and sugar sweetened. So at this point, I leave it mixed, and try to remember what the color of the water was, originally. Though I know I won’t capture it. And in the end, I realize I’m not really even trying to.

I should talk about the best job I ever had, and love and loss and marriage and kids and all that, but that’s so much about now that it lacks the clarity of distance the rest of my life has developed. And without that clarity, standing in the middle of the mix, I can’t even tell what is water and what is the air surrounding the pitcher. And I’m coming up to the end of the single page. And my life's not even over, yet.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Andersons Night (story start)

So I'm taking a writing workshop, Thursday evenings. It's a great group, and it's a kick in the pants to produce. A kick I don't seem to be able to give myself, by myself.

So, I will be posting some of the fruits of that labor here in the next couple of weeks, as another kick in the pants. I mean, you know you're losing something when your son is more prolific in his writing than you. And he's not even out of middle school yet. Sheesh.


The exercise: Find a book that you like the title of. Take the first sentence from that book, and start a new story.

The book: Remember Me? By Sophie Kinsella

The first sentence: Of all the crap, crap, crappy nights I've ever had in the whole of my crap life.

Special note: I wrote the first sentence as the start of the exercise, but in the second edit of the text to come, I changed it. I loved the sentence, but it has a very specific voice that, once I got into telling the story, no longer fit the narrator. So I changed it. So there.

This is now the first part of what's developing to be a nice little crime short story.


Anderson’s Night.

It was a bad night.

And this morning isn’t getting any better. First, the car isn’t where it was supposed to be. I say “supposed to be,” Because I wasn’t the one who parked it. When I park a car, I make a point of getting out and spinning a quick, orienting 360, to tell where I am. I make note of landmarks, areas of the terrain, location in relation to prominent, memorable landmarks, and all that. But this time Ellen was the one driving the car, with me unconscious and sprawled in the back seat, across Reggie’s lap. It was Reggie who pulled me out, on arm under each of my pits, he swore. But by the throbbing in my head and the ache and bruises across my upper body, I couldn’t swear he didn’t pull me of the car and drag me inside, up three flights, by my ankles, my head thudding against each step and hm complaining all the way about how much weight I’d gained since he first met me three years ago. That would be Reggie.

But then, Ellen was there too, and I’m pretty sure…reasonably sure…almost positive she wouldn’t have let him do that. She would’ve lent him a hand, he at the top of my body and her at my feet. She's strong, I give her that. And Reggie, standing at every bit of her five foot five, was never much stronger for being a man. But he was never much of a man, in my opinion. But that's being snarky. And I hate snarky. That's more Reggie's territory.

The trek up to Ellen’s flat would’ve been difficult even just for the two of them. Those stairs are narrow, and the elevator non-existent. I can see her pulling her hair back with that scrunchy things she always keeps around her wrist or in her purse, or on the stick shift of my car. She's careful. She'd have carefully kept her long blonde locks free from the entangling velcro straps on my old sneakers. I may've gotten some footprints across her always-pristine leather jacket, given her significant breasts, and the awkward amble up those stairs. But no wear and tear would've been unloaded on me. And she'd've made Reggie be careful, too. She’s the responsible one. The one who said she loved me. Yeah, she would’ve made sure he was careful with me. Even though, at the time, she thought I was dead.

But then, how responsible was she really? I mean, she was the one who parked the car, and who should’ve known where I always park it when I’m at her place. Always, always, ALWAYS across the street, near the museum, where they let you park for free until about nine, when the meters, and the meter maids, kick in. But I’ve walked up and down this street four times, and I only have an hour until nine, and the damned car is just not here. And, of course, she’s not here to ask anymore, is she? She took off once the shooting started this morning. Not that I can blame her, for that. I never meant to get her into this mess in the first place.

But the car, that I blame her for.

Maybe I should go back and ask Reggie what he remembers. I’m pretty sure he’d still be able to talk. He’d said quite a bit already, before I left him. But I bet he’s got more in him. If he’s still breathing.