Memory Speaks

Black Elk said: “Certain things among the shadows of a man’s life do not have to be remembered – they remember themselves.” He was right. If we’re lucky, we have both memories of good times and memories of important milestones at our command. But whether we’re lucky or not, certain memories come back of their own accord, whether beckoned or not. Many of mine in that category were first lived in a dream place, a middle place, and they come calling with some frequency.

I don’t really know why.

When I was in college, my now-wife and I lived in a nice apartment that happened to be located in the g-h-e-t-t-o with a capital “G”.

One of those sentinels of bygone days, a stalwart stone inner-city middle-class apartment House with solid brick balconies and spacious rooms, French doors, built-in bookshelves, etc. In fact, my own mother had lived in the same building with her parents as a teenager. (I didn’t know this when we looked at the place, but I maintain some strange feeling made me want to live there–call it a feeling of home. I had had no interest in moving, but when we saw this place, I immediately wanted it.)

We had the top floor, and the entry door locked, and it was cheap and our old Greek landlord was a saint, so we were good with it.

One day a couple of girls with…interesting wardrobes…moved in to the apartment below us. I learned later they were sisters, and both worked as strippers at a local club. They were both very nice looking in a surgically enhanced, tacky, over-reaching sort of way.

They moved in with a lot of expensive, brand-new furniture, then completely re-carpeted the place at their own expense. They both drove brand-new cars.

After a few weeks, I noticed they were having “parties” very regularly, lasting to about 3 a.m. It seemed only men attended these parties.

Yep, they were ho’s. And I’m pretty sure they didn’t actually live there. It was just their “business” address.

Anyway, while wondering what to do about it, I noticed one winter evening, coming home around 1:00 a.m. or so, that one of the girl’s new Mitsubishi convertible was parked outside with the engine running. I could tell because it was winter, and the exhaust was visible in the cold.

I went to bed and forgot about it.

When I got up the next day, I looked out my dining room window and noticed the car was still running. What’s more, just then some cops pulled up and started rummaging through it, opening the trunk and such.

I decided to be neighborly and go down there and tell them about it.

I had never spoken to them–we kept different schedules, to say the least. I went down the flight to their place and knocked on the door. I heard considerable shuffling and nervous voices, then a strained “Just a minute” from one of them.

She opened the door a bit, a sheet wrapped around her naked body, her blond shaggy hair all over the place, visibly wired or whacked out on something.

“Hey. I just wanted to tell you your car is out there in the alley, and…”

She interrupted–“My CAR!? Is it RUNNING?”

A bit surprised, I said, “Well, yeah, it is running, and–”

–“Are the COPS IN IT?” Sort of screaming, like we’re arguing even though we’re not.

“Well, yeah, the cops are going through it.”

“Ahhhaaaaayyyy!!!” She screamed in a sort of primal angst-ridding, rolled her eyes back and slammed the door.

Well, I thought, I guess she already knows.

They were gone a few weeks later. I heard the dark haired one had died, or was she murdered?

This was just one of the tamer episodes we had at that place. I would never want to go back, but I do miss the color and unpredictability of the old neighborhood sometimes.

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Heat

The late Summer heat has settled in, and we do battle with it as we do the snow and ice when in winter’s coldest grip. The day divides into the early morning hours and evening–when it’s possible to walk the dog, mow the lawn, or play a game of golf–and the midday stretch, when we resign ourselves to that curious summer version of cabin fever, gazing out the windows at a formidable landscape as we listen to the hum of the air conditioner and wonder how they stood it out here in those first sod-busting years.

I remarked the other day on a rabbit, sitting in the near garden looking as rabbits always do whether winter, spring, summer or fall. All business, he sat still as stone and stared with his right side eye at me, while he surveyed God knows what with the one on the left side. Over 102 out there, and he remains at ease, not the least bit concerned, or at least appearing so. Is he hot? Is he saying to himself, “Damn, it’s hot out here?” No, because all he knows is “out here.” In the evening he will crawl into his warren, somewhere in my yard, and be cooler, though not cool. For now he watches, and waits, nothing but rabbit in late summer.

We time these days by the sprinkler. When did we last drag them out, when do we need to do it again? Is it really going to rain this time, or will it just be more sound and fury, a few stingy droplets on the sidewalk? Do I detect a brown patch? They come out of nowhere, despoiling an otherwise resplendent lawn and garden that grew without effort in April and June. This indifferent and unrelenting sun–it tries the living like the barker at a dance marathon. We have only so much stamina and patience for drudgery and sameness, for dull bright days of pounding sun and sizzling streets and sticky car seats.

But we know, like that rabbit knows his warren, of those evening times, and those morning times. In the morning the air is weighted with dew, it’s visible, it softens the landscape, and you can taste it. The mourning doves and robins and cardinals and sparrows all take advantage, and they look at you knowingly–“This is the time, eh?” they seem to say with that look. (Where do they go at midday?) At twilight the fireflies come into the yard by the hundreds this year, bobbing about slowly, clumsily, awkwardly looking for a date in the cool grass. Will-o’-the-wisps. As the yard darkens their glow increases, eventually becoming the defining pattern out there, always changing and chaotic with stop-and-go flickers of fade-in, fade-out motion. The summer’s night fire dance–its amusing repost to the day’s oppressive stillness.

And we dream the autumn will come, as we dream of spring’s first mud and tight budding in the depths of winter. We dream of cool breezes on skin warmed by the October sun, of swirling golden leaves and long walks in light jackets, the comfort of a temperate time. We know it will come, which makes today’s long sojourn between morning and evening something we can smile about. It will come, and we’ll forget the heat of long days, watch the moon come out like a huge clock face, and cherish that time until the first sprightly frosts of winter rekindle the cold fire of longing for change.

Spring and Hope, Together Again

The sap rises in my newly shorn trees. Buds poke out of the stems I have been warily watching, dreading  they may have died over the winter. But they didn’t. Nor did I. Another spring, another promise.

My daughter has progressed with her bicycle riding.  We will buy her a bigger one this summer, so her knees don’t hit the handlebars. We’ll finish reading her Lemony Snickets book to her, then we’ll start another. Fairly soon the three of us will head off to Niobrara for a therapeutic weekend away from the city, a needed diversion from all of these same days of work, school, and the rest.

I’m trying to punch up my own activity level. Last weekend I took a huge pile of branches from an overgrown shrubbery to task, bending and twisting and finally splitting the green wood, which needed tearing away from its supple bark to make the complete break. It was a Herculean task, one that didn’t really need doing, but I did it anyway. Then I broke them further and spent the afternoon burning the twigs and branches in my outdoor fireplace while drinking a beer.

Very satisfying, but my winter-soft muscles were sore for days afterward. Next week I will plant grass.

I need to get my own bike down off its inverted perch in the garage and put it to use again. I need to get on the trail, feel my legs again. Lately, all I feel of them is the pain from sitting too long, working too long, twisting my impatient legs in knots under my desk. I told my daughter we’d ride the trail together now that she’s a good rider, which scared her a little. But she’ll be fine.

She says she wants to cut her hair short for the summer. That’s a good idea.

We’ll take her to Colorado in June, to the Rocky Mountains. She can climb, breathe the thin air with us, pan for gold in the little stream beside the cabin. We’ll build fires at night, watch the stars from the deck. We’ll eat well.

My house is in order. My trees are trimmed. My clothes fit. It’s a good spring so far, and my home is happy. We are of this Earth, and we belong here. I was made to enjoy these things, and not to wonder at joy’s quotient.

Wordsworth lamented, “The world is too much with us.” And it is. The idiocy of the world won’t stop just because I’m in a good mood. But he also knew that being at one with the real world–nature–was something to aspire to, even as the world of men continues to vie for our attention and tries its best to demonstrate to us our soul’s corruptibility, our body’s corporeality, and our great grand experiment’s utter futility.

Frost knew:

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

Here’s to the futility of grand things.  I too am a happy swinger of birches these days.

Living in a Quiet Place

August 27, 2004

I’ve been eating at the Subway near my office once a week for about five years now. I don’t always get the same sandwich, but nearly always. Today I got a turkey and ham, though usually I get a plain turkey.

If that sounds boring, well, it is. But I’ve found that while I’m always interested in new ideas in art, music, philosophy, etc., and I’m fascinated with new people, places and events, the truth is I’m happy with rut-like routines for the more mechanical aspects of day to day living.

With respect to wardrobe, I am far from a “dandy,” though I try not to be slovenly or wear clothes too far out of style. Occasionally at the office we have a “casual day,” which I usually opt out of. I have a good standard set of boring work clothes–khakis, black slacks, oxfords, and polo shirts from the local mid-value retailer–and the effort required to think up something more “casual” to wear (but not too casual) sort of negates any pleasure I might have in wearing jeans or shorts to work. Plus, I don’t even have that many casual clothes, so I don’t want to “use them up” before the weekend arrives. The whole thing just screws up my monk-like routine.

My last car was an Acura, but it got pretty old, so I traded it in–for another Acura. Hey, they’re just good cars.

It’s simple living, and I no longer find simple to be synonymous with bland or commonplace. Quite the contrary: as the whole population seems to strive for a life of some deeper significance, I accept life as inherently significant, and life’s simple acts as acts of faith in that belief.

My weekdays are filled with routine, though I like to break things up on the weekends. I’m happy to work, come home, work out or mow the lawn if it needs it, read the paper, eat dinner, walk the dog and read to my daughter with my wife, watch TV for an hour, and then hit the sack, where I sleep quite soundly. I look forward to each familiar component of these evenings as others might look forward to a coming change. There is a quietness to these days, a rhythm that is in tune with my life’s rhythm, at least for now. My earlier life was so frenetic, unpredictable, often dangerous. I’m happy to be in this new stage, one where I might plan a long-term personal project without the need for a deadline. I can plant a tree, and say to myself in earnest, “Well, that will be looking just great in about five years or so.”

I can still contemplate the old days, the lessons they taught me. This old life lives on in my mind, a spirit life of some lone gypsy obsessed with finding meaning, searching for people who knew about living, expecting to find significance lurking nearby like a wino in an alley. He eventually stopped wandering and found meaning–in a child’s eyes, a swept porch, a Saturday morning kiss, a dog’s soft ear, a garden of wild lilacs and daisies. The necessary thing was to stop looking.

And now, waves of meaning wash over each morning shave and mirror stare. Who am I today? How will I change to face events, and how will events change me without my knowing? How far away am I from that naïve child who felt so apart from everyone else? How much closer am I now, and will I move closer still, to those I love?

It is the exquisite, almost painful beauty of the world as seen from a quiet place, with room and time to observe the day’s passing, that I crave. And I find it so often, I am approaching a contentment I never knew was possible.

I wrote a bad poem some time ago, about the sun as an indifferent ball of fire careening dumbly through space. I thought it was a poem about alienation and the loss of significance in the face of the death of God, etc.–a riff on the current Zeitgeist. Now I know it was just a poem about loneliness. And that’s what most angst must be about. The inability, if even for a while, to move from separate lonely spaces to a common warm, quiet place of belonging and acceptance. To come home.

Storm Center

Today is my birthday, and here I notice that I’ve kept this log for about a year. My first items–from the mental backlog–sprang forth last spring, and here we are again, enjoying spring on the plains. Another year older, but not much smarter. The Iconoclastic Dog is a year older too, yet she remains the same, eschewing labels. Give me green grass and a hint of rabbit ‘neath the firs, and I’m happy, she avers.

And, as always, I agree. Say what you want about her, she is not one to over-analyze. And while I may not be able to emulate such a philosophy, I do admire it.

It was a wet May. Out here the weather patterns tend to set themselves for a while, offering calm or violence as is the gods’ wont, then abruptly shift to something new. To a Midwesterner, it’s a kind of weather roulette. Folks in San Diego wouldn’t understand, but we enjoy the challenge.

So May offered weekend storm after storm, followed by strangely calm work weeks (feeding rumors that the weather pattern is somehow tied to the Dow Jones). One Saturday was particularly spectacular, offering up 18 twisters in a single night for Nebraska, flash floods in Iowa, and massive storms in Kansas, Oklahoma  and elsewhere. The little town of Hallam, in south-central Nebraska, was destroyed. Less than 10 percent of the buildings were left standing, and the entire town has been condemned, its homes unlivable. People joke about it, but this was actually one of those Level 4 storms that had folks spotting cattle flying through the air. Not funny when you’re the cow, or the owner of the cow.

Dozens of the town’s residents broke into the bank and huddled in a vault as the tornado swallowed up their homes. They say the sound is almost unbearable, and this one took a slow saunter through town, finishing the place off with a businesslike thoroughness. The brick bank building, like most others, actually collapsed. But the people, who are at least as important as currency but not always so well-housed, were safe in the vault. One woman died in her home, struck by debris before she could reach her basement stairway, but that was the total mortality. Mostly these people lost their past and present, and the future doesn’t look so bright either. But they live.

Our experience in the city has been less dramatic, but we’ve had our share of excitement. On the Saturday following the destruction the storms were back, and this time they hit the city pretty hard. We were having a dinner party and at times had to shout over the thunder. Our guests exhibited that nervousness we sometimes feel when experiencing a cataclysm away from our familiar homes. It was a celebration of electricity and raw power, without regard for the plans of the men and women. The point was not lost on us.

We cling deftly but precariously to the exposed surface of this world, which at any time might be swept clean of us or our neighbors by indifferent nature. Yet we cling, and we hope that today’s storm will pass us by, and we try not to think of what realms it will cleanse instead.

We live in the sometimes violent plains, but no one is safe from the storms, which take so many awesome and terrible forms these days. And there is no preparing now, no safe haven really, if there ever was, from what may come. All we can do is keep our grip, and remind each other of how wonderful, how beautiful it all has been. And will be.

Close to Home

I generally take the same route each time I walk the dog. It’s a circuitous route around the neighborhood, chosen for its flatness mainly, and its relative lack of yard dogs.

There is one black dog who never barks at us. I’ve been walking Emma by him for too long. He just stands and stares at us. Not a friend, really, but a neutral party anyway.

It’s a comfort, this wind of familiar streets and sidewalks in the evening. Nothing exciting, but at least I know where I’m going. And the black dog knows me.

I bought a camera recently, an older Japanese SLR – super manual. Got it pretty cheap. I’ve been trying to learn how to use it, taking a roll of shots pretty indiscriminately, testing shutter speeds and apertures in different light.

Of course you get a nice camera and you think you’re going to become the next Ansel Adams. Then you start looking at your daily world through the lens and realize it’s not very compelling subject matter.

But I do go places. We actually have quite a large collection of snapshots from our travels, our celebrations, and such. In about a month we’re going to Italy, which is one reason I decided to try to make the jump to a better camera.

I want a better chronicle of my life. That’s also the reason for this site.
But it’s been, the past few weeks, one of those periods where not much happens. We had Halloween, and my daughter chose to be something “scary” (vampire’s wife) for the first time. It was quite fun, with a pizza and, later in the evening, old horror movies with a few friends.

And of course the world keeps falling apart, nothing new there. The best lack all conviction, etc. They keep picking off our boys in Iraq, one or two a day like there’s a quota. The other day they blew up a bunch of Italians, just for good measure. George Bush is going to London this week. Our only remaining “ally” is beefing up police presence for the visit, bracing for “the biggest mass protest in modern history,” as they are predicting it. It must be great to be completely oblivious to condemnation from the entire rest of the world.

I’ve been suffering through a new ailment, a bum foot. I can not tell you what happened, only that all of a sudden it became very painful to walk. It’s been getting better with some care in walking (Maybe another reason my life is slowed down these weeks – can’t walk too far.)

Maybe this weekend we’ll drive out to the small town we visit each fall . It’s a quaint little place, with apple orchards and a fine old park with ancient trees and an old mansion you can tour through. Maybe we’ll get a good shot of my daughter in the colorful leaves for the old Christmas card.

A man could do worse.

Niobrara Nights

You may have noticed that I let the whole month of September go by without a word.

Not without reason. Like Eliot’s April, I find September the cruelest month. By September I’ve about had it with the Plains version of summer–a sort of relentless boiling–but no, summer will not pass. Around mid-September you start to think it should begin cooling down, but it doesn’t. It just keeps on, in the 90s or better, every day. And the rains stop. No rain. Just hot, humid, sweltering dog days.

And here’s the clincher – they close the pools in August. Early August. So no relief there. We went all the way to Niobrara in September just to get to a pool that was open.
And it was delightful.

niobr2bMy wife’s father and stepmother, in a flash of brilliance and spending, purchased a massive chunk of land in the Niobrara river valley a few years ago. Then (and this was a years-long ordeal worthy of Hercules, or at least his contractor) they plopped a big house down on top of a ridge overlooking the river itself. It’s a wonder. After driving all day from our city, ever deeper into farm territory and then, in the valley itself, ranch territory, then up a never-ending gravel drive to the lonely ridge, you find it (unless it’s dark – then you drive right by it). It sits alone on the ridge, with no other sign of civilization in sight.

Beyond the ridge is the valley and the river.

The first time we visited was a bit odd. The three of us just piled in the car and drove up there one hot August day. It was as if we were visiting a three-masted schooner in the middle of a squall. Because they had built on the high point of the ridge, they got the full fury of the ranging wind. And that night was outrageously windy. You had to yell at someone just a few feet away — and I’m talking about inside the house. We had to crack the windows (no air conditioning), so the wind came in whistling and flapping the blinds all night. And yes, it was hot.

But they got the air conditioning in (a necessity in this place, not a luxury), and about a month ago they had the deck put on. The deck! We came up in early September with some friends, planning a mild weekend in the country. We arrived at night–I was in horrible shape. It had been a crushing day. I had been crushed. But when we arrived, we grabbed a cold beer and we went out on the deck. And the sky exploded.

I imagine there are people in the city, plenty of them, even in my city of the Plains, who have never seen the galaxy they live in. I myself had not seen it for some time, given that I, like most, spend my days locked in a straight-ahead stare at responsibility, tasks and the specter of tomorrow. Oh, you’ll step out on the patio at night and detect a few stars in the glare–look, I think that’s the Big Dipper! But in the dark of that lonely valley, we walked out on that deck and looked up, and we didn’t go back in until bedtime.

The stars, the stardust, the Milky Way, and Mars himself–they all were there for us, stretched across that impossibly wide and cloudless black bowl, to gaze on and to get to know again.

How wonderful to feel infinitely small and large again.