Thursday, May 28, 2009

What We Do To Each Other And Ourselves

Consider, for a moment, what we do to each other. And to ourselves. Consider what we could do for each other. And for ourselves. For several days, I planned to write about mentoring but the thoughts never came together well enough. Never felt more than ordinary. We (all of us) have the opportunity, though, to share. That’s a better word than mentor, I believe right now.

We can know, if not understand. We can feel the heat of the sun and the pull of the moon. It is said that we can forgive.

Mark Twain once wrote, “Forgiveness is the scent of violets on the sole of the shoe that crushed it.” It doesn’t seem like Twain, but he’s most often credited with the words (as he is also most often credited with apologizing for writing somebody a long letter by saying he didn’t have time to write a short one) which have been quoted many times, most recently by Holly Gleason in an email to me and I don’t know how many other people.

In a rambling piece filled with short paragraphs about many subjects, Holly wrote: “Out of every painful thing, lessons emerge, compassion rises, understanding deepens. Sometimes we get to see the vulnerability and fragility of others in a way that makes them even more beautiful.”

I see beautiful young women (or girls on the verge). I signed two autographs for one who was too shy to read her poetry in front of classmates and visitors a tiny East Texas high school, but who let herself be convinced and survived the experience. Later, she stood in the (short) line and bought two of my books, grinning bigger and bigger and blushing, and showed me some more of her face-the-world writing. I felt good for the tall, 20-looking 13-year-old girl who had the courage to stand in front of an audience and read, for the first time in public, her prize-winning poem, “The Killing Addiction,” about, for too long, liking the pain of cutting herself: “Not enough to kill but enough to feel . . . it’s you against yourself.”

I was glad to spend a day in the counselor’s office with the high school senior who wants to be a writer, and wanted to spend “shadow day” with me because she wants to be a writer. Her school is typical: sports and cliques and so much teenage self-absorption, while she makes excellent grades and lives in the world of books. I told her that life is better after high school, and didn’t need to tell her, in plain words, that life can be better than family.

What we do to each other and to ourselves. How much can we spare them from and how much must we share, so that they can become whole?

“Forgiveness is the scent of violets on the sole of the shoe that crushed it.”

Forgive, perhaps, but not forget. I cannot, and do not want to, forget.

This spring, I photographed pretty flowers because they are pretty, and because I choose to see, and share what I see. I get close. I see beautiful young women (or girls on the verge). At the poetry reading where the 13-year-old was brave enough to read about cutting herself, I listened to another one, almost as young, who is as promising a writer as I’ve seen in a long time. I think of the peril as well as the promise. When I read my own poems, I read them directly to the little girl – maybe seven years old – on the front row whose sister is, or was, addicted to the pain. The little girl loved the attention, and it was obvious she listened intently and looked thoroughly engrossed in the words, in the cadence, and in the attention. She didn’t understand most of the words, but she understood the listening.

Today, I talked briefly with a sweet, shy, curious young one – all of 20 now – from a good family whose simple, infrequent presence makes me feel good because she knows the scent of violets but does not, as far as I know, understand, beyond an academic sense perhaps, the sole of the shoe. She likes my photographs of flowers, and paints them.

How will each of us be remembered, if at all? How will I be remembered? Not by the few copies of the handful of books I publish and sell, I am sure, but by what I share with others, that they share again. And what others share with me.
Souls, the Edge of Madness, and Writing

I dialed a phone number last week and, when a lady answered, said, “I’m looking for Mercy.” A week ago, I sent a Facebook message that began, “Thank You, Jesus.”
Both statements, if I had a sense of humor anymore, would have seriously tickled me. I did, in fact, laugh, alone at home, several times about each statement because both were just ordinary expressions of everyday needs. Mercy is Mercy Rushing, the economic development director for the City of Canton, whose name I turned into a phrase in some creative piece I once wrote, and who I called on business. Jesus is Jesus Chairez, who lives in Mexico City, and who had wished me a happy birthday.

I laughed again Saturday morning in the checkout line at the grocery store when, standing in line at Sarah’s counter to pay for a newspaper (remember those?), Christy opened the express lane and called me over. “But Sarah will be so disappointed if she doesn’t get to help me,” I said. Which made both of them laugh.

Saturday night, Kate Hearne said I saved her life. I laughed because what I did was stand beside the ladder she climbed to remove a banner from the front of Crossroads Coffeehouse. Once, halfway down, she slipped and fell. I grabbed her arm just about the same time her booted feet solidly hit the ground.

Somebody once said that people who laugh a lot are happy. Or mad, as in insane.

Joe Parsons, an interesting man I haven’t heard from in a long time, once said of something I wrote, “There is no place anyone can go to learn to write like that. It is something that seems to rise more or less effortlessly out of the depths of one’s soul but, at the same time, finds a way to devour it. It can’t be taught and it can’t be controlled. It’s just there.”
So, writing devours my soul. Maybe it’s a fair trade.

Tina Marzola sent me an email a few days ago after we exchanged first chapters of the novels each of is working on. Hers is a traditional novel. Mine is what I’m calling free-form prose, although I could just as easily call it a free-verse poetry novel. Tina wrote, “Ah, your poetry is dangerous and delicious. It’s amazing to me how one vessel (you) can contain so much truth and raw beauty without going mad. It pulls my guarded heart in directions I’m not sure my better judgment wants me to go.”

So, now I’m in danger of going mad? And soul-less?

A newspaper article recently reminded that lefthanders, such as I am, tend to be more intelligent than you righties, tend to be better at solving problems, tend to be more forgetful, and tend to live an average of nine fewer years. (The article pointed to Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Jimi Hendrix, Babe Ruth, five of the last seven presidents (all but Bush II and Jimmy Carter), and the Olsen twins as lefties.) I also read once that we tend more toward madness.

I’m not writing this for ego, but for self-examination. The unexamined life, and all that . . .

When Jory Sherman, a Pulitzer-nominated novelist, asked me what a free-form prose novel was, I emailed him the first chapter. Jory has published more than 300 books and, now legally blind, taken up watercolor. He was part of the San Francisco Beat scene back in the day (one of “the days”), and thinks a free-form prose novel “might” work.

“Worth a strong try, I think,” Jory wrote. And, “I remember when John Martin, who owned Black Sparrow Press, asked Bukowski to write a novel. Hank called me up in a panic, didn’t know where to start, how to finish. I told him to just think of it as one of his letters. Write a short piece every day, put it in a drawer and forget about it until he was finished. So, he wrote ‘Post Office’ and it was just fine. He went on to write other novels.”

At the time, Jory said, he was thinking about how Richard Brautigan wrote “In Watermelon Sugar” and “Trout Fishing in America.”

“He just wrote something every day and let his mind take him on a journey through his mental landscape,” Jory said. He said he hopes my free-form prose novel “shines like the moon in your hand.”

I am privileged to know Jory, and many of the creative people who receive this monthly message from me.

On Sunday morning, back at the grocery store for another newspaper, Sarah, a high school senior, bought one of my new books, the free-verse poetry collection “Stolen Lies,” telling me that her class is studying free-verse poetry right now. So. $10. Maybe there’s a method in my madness.
the bluster of winter wind

the bluster
of winter wind
before the edge of spring
barely stirs the surface
of stagnant green water
thick with the sludge of clichéd excuses

where evil comes from
(“Some said the original evil was the vacuum caused by the Fairy Queen Lurline leaving us alone here,” from Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire)
belief, like brittle leaves,
dances in the harsh wind

a tiny, dark-eyed sprite
on the verge of tears and laughter
cowers at the water’s edge,
her dark hair cut jaggedly short
and darkly made eyes
and near-child-thin body

smiles at a stranger
who offers hope
only to toss it into the wind

evil is not
in the conflict
of tangled thoughts

in the giving in

the luster
of winter (when
before the edge of spring)
barely stirs the surface

the sprite seems
so fresh, so clean
that a stranger
washes his soul
in her arms

shares her intention
with a stranger:

to bring souls
back from Hell

a stranger
tells her she must go
insane and return

she must cross
the stagnant green water
thick with the sludge of doubts

belief, like brittle leaves,
dances in the harsh wind
that suddenly dies

she flees
to an inner sanctuary:
calm, cool, slight dampness
from the slow drip of water
like echo of percussion
Joy in Tonight’s Sunset

I see joy in tonight’s sunset, which looks like fire low and long across the horizon after an odd day of human contact. It’s time for a sleepless night or for dreams. Nearby, the Neches, which bubbles up out of earth a mile or two from here, barely flows. Some people call it the last wild river in Texas; it moves slowly through trees and tangled brush where the snakes lie. The river nymph Eurydice, bit by a snake, died and Orpheus followed her to the Underworld but, because of his momentary doubt, lost her forever. So that he might sing of her deep beauty until he died.
Distance becomes a series of tiny deaths and resurrections. Trees that cling to the edge of the Neches dwell in three worlds: the surface, the roots that descend into earth, the branches that reach toward the sky. I want to touch her smile with both hands, to slip inside the heat and taste the sweet soul emerging into clarity through Nietzsche’s theory of the necessary balance between Apollonian intellectuality and Dionysian passion; life demands the truths of laughter and intimacy. (Tom Robbins wrote that true intelligence is always in the service of serenity, beauty, novelty, and mirth.) Her voice is as soft as flowers singing time. I see joy in tonight’s sunset. Joy for the night’s satisfactions, and for the coming sunrise. Her eyes, brown and deep with gentle meaning, sparkle as they reflect first light. I trade memories for moments to live again. Some mornings, fog lurks above the river’s crooked bed, eager to catch my imagination.
Diamonds and Distance

The bell tolls for joy. Once, twice, three times. More. Slow peals that resonate over and over as we pause in our daily routines to listen. To realize. There are many kinds of joy. One of the greatest joys should be, but never is, a simple one: finding someone to talk comfortably with. It’s rare. Not daily chatter, but trusts shared with enough ease to walk in shadows as well as sunshine.

Someone to discuss books with, who reads. Someone to discuss fears with, who fears. Someone to share intimacies with, who overcomes fears. Someone to discuss creativity with, who dreams. Someone to discuss beauty with, who is beauty. Someone interesting enough to explore, and to let explore you. Someone to, from time to time, share silence with.

Don’t take even one moment of such simple joy, when you find it, for granted. Don’t forget to balance that simple joy with the universal, semi-true notion that “nobody knows me.” The bell tolls for joy, sudden long, low, lingering sounds that eventually fade into the high sky on a clear, cold morning, the last star near the western horizon like a diamond in the distance.

The magic castle morphed. Instead of living in what looked like a 30-footlong, 240-square-foot trailer as I thought I did for the past four years, I now live in a simple-seeming, 500-square-foot house that’s just big enough for my needs.

There’s hot water for showers and dishes. There’s a washer and a dryer for clothes. There’s a fairly big, covered front porch with two rocking chairs on it where I can watch the seasons change. There’s room on the walls to hang some of my photographs and, in the office corner, some of the quotes I love, printed on colored paper and pinned in rows. Here’s one from Ron Jenkins: “Clowns are kaleidoscopic emblems of human imperfections, and comedy is the chronicle of their struggle to survive.” There’s room in the office corner, too, for my fifth-grade class photo with all of the smiling faces, and the softball team photo from Parkland Hospital; I played first base and we won 21 games and lost only four, taking the championship with a 9-0 win over some, at the time, hated rival. There is room in this new version of the magic castle for books and for music to breath.

The tiny brass dragon hovers near the window in the kitchen area. I remain at the foot of the mythic mountain. The endless sea ended last New Year’s Day when the dam broke, but it will be back. The ghost in the dungeon is free to roam among kindred souls in the forest near the Neches, which is just a creek here but perseveres all the way to the Gulf of Mexico to mingle its waters with the seas.

I feel a sense of liberation; I don’t think I’ll ever take a hot shower for granted again.

I went to sleep one recent cold, almost-winter night with ice forming in the rain-dropped puddles on the ground outside. I felt warm, and delightfully, for the moment, alone. Sometime during the night, I dreamed fragments.

I dreamed that, as I walked along some back-country road of life shepherded by old-growth trees, I saw myself walking toward myself. I felt the pull of the full moon far away, and heard blood lap languidly, patient on some distant rocky shore. I heard myself tell myself of the woman with the pale skin who dances through my dancing mind. I asked myself how many of her mysteries I might ever learn.

I dreamed again, awakened by a pale, dark-haired angel sitting on the edge of my bed. I reached to touch her and she moved just beyond me to tell me of her fears and joys. She does not belong in this East Texas place where she finds herself, she said, and she will leave soon. She is sad. She’s vaguely worried that the human race is suicidal, and she wonders about her own future. Sometimes, she said, she wanders forever, it seems, in the massive loneliness of the Cygnus Loop supernova remnant or the ghostly debris from a dying star in the Large Magellanic Cloud.

I dreamed for a third time. Of freedom so pure that I wouldn’t recall the concept at all, and of soaring with that pale angel (her sad eyes sparkling like stars) in the stardust of endless galaxies.

How would I explain today’s America and the world to a bright, doubly sheltered young woman? She’s 19, with a shy smile and a sly sense of humor. With her fairly long, fairly angular body she evokes, just a bit, a Calder mobile only prettier and infinitely more interesting. She seems to be a really fine, conscientious person, but doubly sheltered: raised in Northeast Texas, home schooled in a fundamentalist atmosphere as one of soon-to-be-13 children. She wants to go to Africa to teach; she wanted to go to Mexico with her grandfather, but didn’t feel right about traveling on a Sunday.

With so many differences between us, she and I dance around each other, tentatively approaching and pulling back. We talk about love of teaching and about learning; we talk a bit about her family, and about a few other safe subjects. When the election is settled and “my” candidate wins, how would I explain today’s America to her learned sensibilities?

I went to vote early at the Van Zandt County courthouse, and stopped for lunch at a restaurant on the square. There, another beautiful young woman of about the same age but a very different, often harsh upbringing asked if she could ask me who I would vote for.

“Obama,” I said.

I told her that during the past two or three months, since John McCain wanted to be president so badly that he sold his soul to the Rovians, that the whole Republican campaign had become like a “Saturday Night Live” script.

She agreed.

After lunch, I walked across the street and voted for Obama, for many other Democrats, for a Libertarian, and for a Republican. Obama got my vote because I believe he holds a glimmer of hope for a renewed America and its place in the world.

I am a real (progressive) American, and I am ashamed that some people believe “real Americans” only come from small towns or have small-town, isolated attitudes. I hope my vote, which I cast early, counts. I hear that talk about how everybody should vote, no matter who they vote for, but if you’re not going to vote for the same candidate I did then I’d just as soon you remain at home.

I felt for John McCain (for the candidate he wants to be) when he took the microphone and told a supporter that Obama is a decent man; otherwise, I’ve lost so much respect for him. This week, as much as I want to respect other viewpoints, I smiled when the news reported that someone high up in the Republican campaign called Sarah Palin a “whack job;” while McCain disappoints me, she scares me on several levels. No, that’s not quite right; I don’t like the way she’s lined her pockets with taxpayer money, and what actually scares me is the people who chant in chorus at her rants.

Today’s America is so much more complex than most of us know or accept or are willing to admit. There is the Constitution. The Bill of Rights. The blood spilled. The changing face. The problems solved. The problems still to fix, certainly. Many of them. In my lifetime, a civil rights revolution, a gender revolution, and a whole cultural revolution that is still in its teen years. There are rock ‘n’ roll and blue jeans. There are the KKK and neo-Nazis and al-Qaeda and talk radio, and “partisan news” where provocation trumps thoughtfulness. To toss out more labels, here are liberals and then there are financial conservatives and then there are cultural conservatives. There is so much SIGI: Self-Interest, Greed, and (too often) Ignorance. And political sleight-of-mouth in a premised land where fear and joy seem equal partners, where bewilderment and bravado are common.

Here are some statements that lead to questions for the young Calder woman to ask herself as she turns in the sweet, southerly breeze:

There was Tex Ritter, who once said at the County Music Association awards banquet that “the most vivid picture we have of our country is contained in the songs of the common man . . . and those songs are country songs.” And, “We seem to better understand each other in songs.” And, “His songs are not unlike the mirror held before the dirty-faced little boy which causes him to wash his face.”

There are theories of faith (of the songs of life) that I do not understand at all, except perhaps as attempts to fill the emptiness and to grasp at immortality. There is Emil Cioran’s statement: “A book is a suicide postponed.”

There is Heather McHugh, who believes that “a poet’s love of words does not compete with his love of silence.”

There is Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s statement that “things only get magical at the Edge.”

There is music at its best, emotional seduction from Beethoven to Guthrie to Mingus.

There s the T-shirt for my favorite, at the moment, fictional band, Strangers in a Strange Band. The colorful, dancing letters on the black T-shirt tell us, simply, “World Detour.”

There was Tony Hillerman, who I exchanged emails with and who died in October, who wrote wonderful novels about the clash of civilizations in Navajo Arizona, and who once wrote, “Those places that stir me are empty and lonely. They invoke a sense of both space and strangeness, and all have about them a sort of fierce inhospitality.”

There is my Depression-era, farm-raised father, who gave me a $10 bill with the comment that it was the last part of a $20 bill he’d kept in his wallet for nearly a year.

There is Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who told us that Democrats must accept the finality of their powerlessness.

There is the Ellen Goodman comment: “In all the talk of clashing civilizations, do we understand that the basic clash is between fanaticism and tolerance, the closed fist and open hands? This line cuts through the heart of virtually every religion – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.”

I can’t help thinking that we all owe it to ourselves to hear, if not make, meaningful music; to look at, if not make, meaningful visual arts; to read, if not write, meaningful words, to explore and share ourselves.

There is art criticism which focuses primarily on technique rather than on the art’s emotional or intellectual impact. Technique is a means, not an end.

All of these (and so much more) are parts of America. Another is the world of Wal-Mart, Cici’s pizza, and reality TV; still another is Goodwill, pawnshops, and tiny homes on wheels when there is a home at all.

Last year, I saw a church sign exhorting that the sheep shouldn’t stray far from the flock. Last year in the Mensa magazine, I read a letter from a man named Ric Brown who challenged conformity, saying it takes “a measure of intellectual arrogance to claim to have an original thought.” If any one of us were to have a truly original thought, would anyone else understand it? When the whole world goes mad, it considers the individual insane. What am I bid for this human soul that I stole, that I may be free of it?

Conscientious young Calder woman, I do not apologize for giving you more to think about than any supposed answers or self-assuring comfort that I might give you about this election.