Morning World, Mourning Whirl

Parabolic stories told in whispered corners of a broken-down house, where the moonlight creeps in like a suggestion and stays there, wandering, before dissipating just enough to let you sleep.

Ego fears and slipping between a version of yourself that you left behind and an uncertain future you find yourself barreling toward.

Approaching something like stillness, and training yourself to be okay with it, without trauma and learned internal violence.

Of entering conflicts only when needed, and even then with a distilled serenity, a weightlessness, and the calm that comes with being accustomed to terror.

Half-dreamt landscapes that won’t fill all the way in on waking but which leave impressions, visions of themselves, like an image burnt into a cathode ray tube, searching for the cells that make up this generational hurt, this wandering sorrow.

And it all seems so trivial now, the shouting matches, the screaming tears, doors slammed and feelings hurt, set against what we’re now fighting, all of us, collectively.

It’s in talking past the severed connections and getting at something like communication.

Not the way it was, but maybe the way it could’ve been.

Now it’s in sipping strong coffee in the morning, awake before anyone else in the house, and cherishing this newfound quiet as much as you don’t trust it.

As much as you fear it.

It’s being able to just sit, and breathe, and appreciate your cat as he sits in front of a window, unmoving, and the stillness of the morning world around you, the mourning whirl of grief coming in slow now, like the delayed pain of fingertip on stovetop, and wondering about the original order of things, if there ever really was such a thing.

And maybe it’s even making your own order, if you can, in the honey-drip stillness of a too-early morning, before the alarm hits, before the birds can really process things, awake in the undark, processing last night’s dream and the belief that it’ll fade followed by the reality of it fading.

Like a shadow yielding to light.

They All Fall Down

You can smell violence like you would a dying flower in an empty lot, mold gathering in all the cracks, hearing the distant sound of sirens, eating a honey bun you got with your last $0.50 from a convenience store you haven’t been to in years, understanding that this is the place, this is the time, this is where you make your stand, on the street corner standing opposite the ones who wave confederate flags, showing toothless grins, with beards the color of puke, knowing that this place you now call home is not where you were born but where you were born again, and all of these fuckwits come in with out of state license plates, cheesing for the cameras, trying to get the next soundbite that will go viral, no real conviction behind their words, and you can tell that last part by how they look at you, or rather how they look away and won’t meet your stares with their own, because they haven’t been through real hardship, really, maybe drink and drugs but not poverty, not violence, not the gnawing sense that you could be hurt or killed at any moment just stepping outside your door, being told not to leave your home or go certain places at certain times, having to take precaution always, not knowing if you can trust your own neighbor, you’ve been there but they haven’t, because you can see it in their eyes when they spout their slogans, when they sing their dixie, you can see the death in there–a death that their bodies and brains haven’t caught up to yet but their souls have already suffered, and what comes out of their mouths is a result of fear, and all fear can be exploited–you know this as you stand in front of them, some of these old men still playing confederate dress-up, LARPing as johnny rebel even though they’ve never had to fight their entire lives, only fought by choice, always on the losing team, the wrong side, and when you stand in front of one of them and ask him if he knows that he’s on the wrong side of history, he’ll say this is his history, this alternate story constructed in his brain, and you know he’s not worth the effort to swing your fist, not worth the effort and yet there might be one in the future who is, so you show up every time because this isn’t done until it’s done, statues aren’t gone till they’re gone, and you have to show up, have to be present, have to be visible so that they know they will be fought every step of the way, so that they know their ideology is cancerous, so that they lose the same battle their ancestors lost before them–because these wars are not won with rhetoric or even argument. They all fall down, but they have to be made to fall.

Stay Hungry

It’s amazing the lengths you’ll go to to connect two homes in your head. You’ll take a walk next to a razor-wire-fence-protected golf course and remember a similar one back home, the only difference being that here there’s North Carolina red dirt in place of the rich black kind you’ll find in Chicagoland. You’ll pass by the hole that’s been cut into the fence and see yourself as a weed-grazing adolescent, sneaking into a defunct fisherman’s lagoon to get covertly high while your parents fought back home.

You’ll walk an hour or more in this land that isn’t yours and transpose old haunts from where you used to live. You’ll find an open, empty field in the middle of nowhere and pretend it’s the one just off Western Ave. back in Chicago, the one that was so wide and so vast that you could actually find something like quiet, right there, in the busyness of the city. The cars that streamed past in the distance were so far away that they might as well have been lightning bugs dancing in the summer sky. But there are no lightning bugs circling this North Carolina field. Nothing but land and air, sweat and earth.

These comparisons are unavoidable. Every slice of pizza you have will be compared against what you’re accustomed to, every Carolinian hill will remind you of the flatness of the Illinois earth. But still, this is your adopted land. Your transplanted town. So you walk. You remember the failed relationship, failed job, failed lifestyle that got you here. All of these failures that led you to where you are now, scarred and battle-worn but otherwise okay. Otherwise thriving. You watch as pounds are shed from your body, pounds you put on back home when it seemed like you were in a hole that went down for miles without even a glimpse of sun. You walk and fight, train and run. You go from proving yourself to others to proving yourself to yourself. You stay hungry.

In a matter of months, you go from barely getting out of bed to make a package of ramen before falling asleep again to working for yourself, doing MMA training, and working on getting your master’s. You realize the absurdity of this transformation as you go on another one of your walks, passing this razor wire that’s meant to protect the golf course from the denizens of your neighborhood. You laugh at the concept of it.

You write some more, like you did in the old days, simply putting yourself on the page. It’s fiction, sure, but it’s real enough that you’re basically in there. You’re basically contained in that little box, waiting for someone else to read you. You read Wallace and Tolstoy and Beatty and Murakami and Hoban. You write like a fucking madman. You stay hungry.

It seems as though anything you decide to do simply happens. You’ll come to realize that this is actually a more involved process, that it requires a mental toughness you’ve honed over years of putting up with unbelievably crazy shit. You’ll remember the story you heard over and over again at the Zen temple you used to go to back home. The one about the ambitious monk who wanted to reach enlightenment, who desperately asked his teacher what he had to do to reach it. And the way your own teacher’s eyes would light up when he’d relate what the story’s teacher had said, that the ambitious monk had to chop wood and carry water.

You didn’t understand it then, but you think you might have an idea now. The thing was all that mattered. If you wanted to be a writer, you had to write. If you wanted to be a fighter, you had to train. If you wanted to be a student, you had to study. It was as simple and difficult as that.

People will ask you how you keep up with all of it, how you stay so active, always looking for a new challenge, always trying to beat yourself at whatever you’re doing. You’ll laugh and shrug it off, but there will be an answer, an answer you’ll never give but will always think. The answer is that the alternative is worse than death. It’s an alternative you watched your parents go through, with crumbling marriage and lost jobs and addictions and homelessness. It’s an alternative you saw the beginnings of in yourself back home, toward the end, working a job you hated, engaged and stuck in a relationship that was breaking you down into tiny tiny parts, confronting your past traumas in bits and pieces, here and there, only remembering scattered details but never seeing the whole picture, like an ant unaware of the human world that surrounds it.

You’re a little more achey, a little more creaky, but you’re stronger. You’re smarter. Nothing can really bring you down the way things used to before. It’s funny. There aren’t any Zen temples for you to visit where you live now, but you understand the teachings better now than you did back then. You don’t try to win the approval of others, you just do the thing. You don’t chase enlightenment, you just chop wood and carry water. You stay hungry.

You Again

Metamorphosis

“No, I don’t mean it in like a metaphorical sense. I mean you’re literally, actually, a different person.”

You look in the mirror. Open your mouth. Check your gums.

“See?”

There’s no change whatsoever. It’s you there, staring back at you.

“I was halfway about to call the police, but then you got up and started talking. You still talk like you.”

You go back to looking in the mirror. You could use a shave. Other than that: fine. Other than that: you.

“Did you just read The Metamorphosis? Are you trying to Kafka me?”

“See? You used Kafka as a verb. It’s you.”

* * *

She refuses to be seen with you anywhere. People might think she’s cheating. You call off work. Try to make yourself scarce.

It comes in stages. Your nose. Your lips. Not quite right. Not quite you. She sees you.

“Your nose is back! Your mouth, kinda.”

As you change, so does she. She waits in anticipation like a kid on Christmas morning. You “change back” slowly, then all at once.

You stand in front of the mirror, her behind you, you somebody else.

“See? It’s you again.”

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PAST THE HURT

He almost had a heart attack after his first post-hurt run, or at least that’s what it had felt very clearly like. He hadn’t had a heart attack before for comparison, but he’d heard about the symptoms and they all matched up.

I say post-hurt because that’s what he called it, as in after the hurt. We all have a hurt inside, nothing special about it really, but his particular hurt had to do with not reconciling with his emotionally abusive mother before she died. He can talk about it frankly now, because he’s in the post-hurt. But it wasn’t always that way.

No, for years it was terrible. Even for an optimist like him, terrible was the most apt way of describing it. She gave him a deep hurt every day, in the form of insults both spoken and yelled. She gave him the hurt because she hadn’t dealt with her own hurt inside. It’s funny how it works that way.

He ate. Constantly. Consumed fast food like it was his job, to the point where drive-thru workers knew him by name and smell. Took his once in-shape, football-playing body and expanded it, let it grow and grow until the hurt seemed like it would burst him from the inside.

When he wasn’t eating he was on the computer. She could still send the hurt his way then, as always, but he had his own world inside that laptop screen. A world where his body was the same as it always had been, and the hurt didn’t take up so much of his mental real estate.

He stopped weighing himself after a couple months. Reading the number the scale told him just added to the hurt. So he remembered the number it used to tell him before the hurt and pretended that that’s where it would stay.

Her mind went after the house did. Great piles of trash and personal effects lined the hallways, a veritable mountain range of detritus. He lost a few pounds just in trying to clean it alone, but she’d give him more hurt when he tried, so he left it alone.

Soon the doctor’s visits were real, and not just hypochondriac outbursts. There were weird words that added to the hurt then, words like glioblastoma and terminal.

He couldn’t say a word to her the last time they saw each other. He’d wanted to, but the hurt stopped him. So he just looked at her face as she looked at his.

There passed silent months then, months of frustrated quiet and unbearable solitude.

But then he met her. It was just one of those things, you know. She saw his hurt right away and didn’t run from it. She’d seen it before in myriad ways, countless times and people and places.

So he ran. And his heart threatened to attack, and he took it easy for a while. But he ran. And as he did, the hurt took a breath. It left him to it.

So he ran again. And again. Ran through his chest’s tightness, kept going even when he was sure his legs would collapse under the weight. The sheets of sweat were liquid hurt, left there momentarily on his skin to be carried away by the wind.

He went a week without fast food. Then two. Then a month. Started craving apples over Big Macs, started reading again like he used to, too. The hurt was still there, but it was tiny. Shriveling more and more by the day.

Soon he could jump rope again. Soon he could sleep the whole night, without apnea to wake him. Soon she could almost touch fingertips together when she wrapped her arms around him.

He set a deadline for the hurt’s final destruction: his first half marathon. The hurt whispered persistently in his ear and planted its doubt, but he weeded his garden regularly with runs.

There came a day when he wanted to hear what the scale had to say again. And when he listened, he hardly believed what he heard. It told him the number in his mind, the one he held onto for all that time.

The hurt destroyer came. Weeds sprung up everywhere in his garden as he ran and ran and ran, prickly, thorny weeds that refused to be plucked from the dirt so easily. He didn’t know where the strength came from, but I do. It came from the hurt. Because if you hold onto that much hurt for that long, it’ll either end up killing you or saving you.

A mile passed, then another. Lactic acid soaked his muscles, weeds strangled his brain. But he put one foot down, then the other. One foot down, then the other.

In the end, the hurt didn’t have a chance. It was outrun. It just couldn’t keep up. He saw it there at the finish, at the line that had marked the beginning not too long ago.

It was faded and torn, catching on the wind in spots. And when a stiff breeze finally came, it was blown away with ease.

So he doesn’t shy from talking about it now. Why should he? It’s just a memory, just a dream of an old life lived long ago. A time before he’d gotten past the hurt.

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