Was Gone for Days

I just didn’t have it in me. The living of life with the eyes open to the details, the sublime in the ordinary. Nope, for the last week I’ve only wanted to run away. Since writing is a lens through which I develop my own consciousness, then I wanted to be nowhere near the act. Anything I started to tap out felt fake, anyway, because my heart wasn’t in it; I had, as Ginsberg has put it, no shoulder behind the wheel.

My heart in fact was into not being present. I was trying to embrace my own nihilism, to accept my unwillingness to see the bridges. My friend Dre says that “balance is available to you at any moment,” and I believe this, but yesterday I did not want to lift the heavy veil between me and the good spot. It’s not that I’ve been teetering on imbalance’s beam; it’s more a feeling of numbness, nullness, a mute cloud.

But then my boy, who was home sick kinda from school, told his Mama that he wanted to stop by my office so that he could give me a hug and a kiss, which he did on a gravel parking lot and I swear those lips on my cheeks bathed me in hued light; “love works” I told him later, because he unlatched his chest and walked through its swinging doors until he reached mine — which were locked — but his words and touch were the key, and now here I am feeling this diamond inside, cracking open as I feel that kiss again.

A Letter in Hand

I remember so clearly the feeling of opening my mailbox to find a handwritten letter inside: seeing my name scrawled across the front of the envelope, sliding my finger under the back flap to open it, rubbing the grain of the paper against my thumb.

And there was nothing like sending mail either: the time it took to compose a good letter (sometimes a day per paragraph, the half-composed missive traveling in my backpack from house to cafe to library until I finished it); the rush of affection I’d feel signing the closing valediction; the final quiet moment before I dropped the letter into the mailbox where it emitted a satisfying thud as it found its temporary home among all the other envelopes.

Upstairs I store almost all of letters I’ve ever received in a box labeled “memorabilia”: there are the sweet cards from my mother when my sister and I would stay with my grandparents for most of the summer when we were kids; the long letters exploring our mutual love of punk rock from my middle-school friend Rob Rankin after he moved from Southern California to the northern part of the state; the missives from friends and family when I moved to Johannesburg to teach high school after I graduated from college. Sometimes when I open this box I don’t come downstairs for hours; the past becomes a hall I walk through as I hold these artifacts in my hands.

When email arrived on the scene in the mid-nineties, I lamented the threat it posed to the traditional letter; now I’m as nostalgic about those cyber-missives as I am about real letters. I remember the rush of seeing a bolded “1″ next to “new mail” and the exquisite pleasure of deciding whether to read the letter quickly on screen or to delay the gratification by printing it out and reading it under a tree later in the day.

My love affair with Annie largely played out through email: because I was a graduate student in 1994 and she had an Internet savvy brother, we were both early adopters of the medium. Our first introduction, through a friend, happened through email, and when we consummated our relationship as romantic and I summarily moved across the globe to South Africa, we exchanged hundreds of long emails where we revealed our hearts’ hidden folds through the wires. I once printed out all of these letters; it was a 200-page manuscript. If someone asked me to tell them the story of our love, I could just hand them that sheaf of paper because it chronicles the tale so well.

These days my inbox is about as juicy as our house’s mailbox. Both are crammed with junk mail and bills, with the occasional informational item thrown in. It’s almost shocking when real letters arrive. Instead we now have texts, social media, and instant messages. There’s something to be said for the rush these can bring, too, but the more instant the communication, the more forgettable it seems to become. I’ve had “IM” conversations that seem to exist oddly out of time; I may be present during them, but once they’re over it’s almost as if the exchange is wiped from my mind, the memory of it vague like a dream come morning.  There’s also so much less room for rumination: modern communication may be fast, but you know you’re losing something when complex thoughts have to be whittled down to 140 characters.

Annie was recently downloading information from an old cellphone before she sent it back to the manufacturer. First came the contacts; then the photographs; next the video. And then she asked, “Should I also get all the texts?” They represented interesting moments of several relationships, but she wasn’t sure they merited a save. In the end, she opted to let them go; that doesn’t mean they lacked value, but I do wonder what will happen if we have no more records of our lives.

At least with email there’s some captured history; I occasionally click back to the very opening pages of my emails and read the long notes I exchanged with friends back in the old days of 1997. But even this is ephemeral; a few weeks ago I opened my inbox to find all of my old emails mysteriously erased. I engaged my provider’s customer-service machine, and the best I could get was a “real time” instant-message exchange during which the technician was unable to restore my emails. Fifteen years of correspondence gone in an instant.

In some ways I feel lighter without those thousands of notes following me around, but the truth is I have lost words that were given and exchanged in moments of passion, pain, and love. Part of the reason I dutifully keep all of my old letters and journals is to remember the paths I’ve taken in life, which anchors me when I’ve lost my way. As the folk singer and storyteller Utah Phillips once said, “I can go outside and pick up a rock that’s older than the oldest song you know, and bring it back in here and drop it on your foot. Now the past didn’t go anywhere, did it?” I know that box of memorabilia upstairs is my version of this rock; in a fire, it’s one of the first items I’d run in to save.

Good Morning, Fear

I don’t know if it’s some twisted application of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous words or if it’s simply human nature, but I spend a lot of time in fear of fear itself. Unless I encounter something like a snake on a trail or a swerving car hurtling toward me, I don’t really interact much with my own fear, even though I have lots of it. My practice is to treat it as an unwelcome houseguest I hope will go away if I just close my eyes long enough. And yet fear exerts a huge influence on my psyche; it’s almost as if it gains power the more I pretend it’s not there.

I experienced this phenomenon over the weekend. Rio and a kid he knows had a run-in, and for some reason, this incident triggered a lot of painful feelings in me, most of which were faces of fear. Are Annie and I parenting right? Will Rio be rejected? Will I be rejected? Why are there so many loose, imperfect ends in my life? Why am I doing only A through G on my list of improvements for self, family, and house instead of A to Z? And why the fuck do we have so many things in storage?

I say this now, but on Saturday, I couldn’t have listed these fears because I was too busy shielding my eyes from them. I’m very good at knowing what I feel, but not so good at knowing what I fear. It’s as if I recoil the moment fear makes its presence known, retreating to my insulated chamber where I wait for the world to go away. I didn’t reach out to anyone most of the weekend and instead played a favorite game of mine called Numb It.

The problem is that fear is hungry and doesn’t take kindly to being ignored. It came back with a dagger, striking at 4 a.m. when I bolted awake with a morbid sense of rupture between me and Rio, between Rio and that kid, between our house and theirs. It’s as if fear hired a horror-film director and cast a montage of worst-case scenarios on my mind’s wall. In short, spurned fear returned as anxiety, which afflicted me all weekend long.

The other form unmet fear takes for me is anger. Recently Annie and I had a disagreement. I had been building resentment, which I’d been hiding so expertly I didn’t even see it myself. But then Annie committed some small infraction that triggered the “I’ve got her” response, and I pointed a long finger in her direction and made sweeping generalizations that hurt. I raised my voice so loud my vocal chords felt strained the whole day; I even threw my jacket to the kitchen floor with a flourish, an act so silly I wish I’d caught it on camera so I could get some kicks later watching my own folly.

Finally I settled down, and as we kept talking we reached a tender place. And then I admitted, “I’m scared.” I listed everything I was afraid of, in terms of our marriage, our family, our future, and she said, “I wish you had just started there. I can meet you there. We can work from there.”

I don’t have a magic bullet for interacting with fear; I just know avoiding it causes me more harm than good.  I want to see fear as an opening to walk through, not a steel-jawed trap to run from.

My friend Jason told me a story years ago that I like to keep in mind. A man is sitting in his house and he hears a scary monster outside. It (whatever it is we don’t want to face) is walking around the house, trying all the doors and windows, trying to get in. The man imagines a ghoulish monster with long claws dripping in blood. He retreats to a back room. The monster starts to knock. When no one comes, the monster knocks louder and says, “I know you’re in there!” The man finally musters up the courage to answer the door, and he looks out to find a tiny smiling creature standing on the mat. “What took you so long?” the creature asks, and walks in.

Living the Word

What to make of the oft-heard dictum that writing is hard?

For one, I don’t think writers have a corner on the market. Obviously it takes skill, study, and discipline to get the words right, but this is true for any creative endeavor. Maybe we hear more about “writer’s block” than “painter’s block” because writers write about it! But, yes, writers, like all artists, need to practice, and study the masters, and spend many hours working on their craft.  As Oscar Wilde once said, “I spent the entire morning inserting a comma; I spent the whole afternoon removing it again.”

But what of the times when an artist just can’t face the empty canvas?

Up until recently, I’d experienced a frustrating season of not writing as much as I wanted to. I had a lot of free-floating artistic angst; sometimes this imploded as hopelessness, other times it exploded in tiny fits of envy toward other writers who were seemingly more prolific than me.

I feel pain when I don’t write, because I’m happy when I do; nothing like the river of words cascading down the page. But often in life I leave this place of glory — sometimes aggressively marching off, other times getting distracted away. This is what is difficult — the inexorable separation from the very pursuits that make me happy. What I’m not writing, the grace I’m not feeling — this, to me, is the hard work of writing. Writing itself, then, is arduous because it is difficult to get to.

I believe there are some hidden passages back to the creative sweet spot. I taught a course recently at the local community college called “Write Where You Are.” In it we aimed to shed the delusions of the writer we should be and embrace instead the writer we already were. What we found is that we were all writing — sometimes on the back of a shopping list and sometimes in an email to a friend — but the words were there to prove it, even without the validation of a contract or a book editor’s stamp of approval. We had all become so enslaved to the story of our own underproduction that we couldn’t see our own virtuosity. A friend of mine told me her version of such artistic re-framing; she started calling her creative time “the making hour” instead of “when I’ve got to write.” Sometimes she wrote; sometimes she knitted, but the fact is she was being creative and fruitful, with much less stress.

Still, there are times (days, months) when I just don’t feel like writing.  Some may rush to tag these seemingly unproductive periods with the label of “writer’s block,” but I like to approach the impasse differently. I think most writers fret needlessly over their pencil’s silence. I once heard a radio interview with the novelist Richard Ford. After being asked what he thought about writer’s block, Ford replied, I don’t. “When I’m not writing,” he said, as best I can recall, “I’m busy living, which gives me material for writing later on.” As another story goes, in Buddha’s day monks spent most of their time wandering. It was only during the three-month rainy season that they actually came in for formal practice. And here we are freaked out because we didn’t meditate (write, paint, sculpt) during our pre-assigned slot today.

Artists, then, have a choice: to label an unproductive period as a failure, or to unwring their hands and dig them instead into the fresh dirt of the days ticking by. Because if quiet periods are labeled as dead, what material will artists draw from when inspiration somehow picks the lock on their door and grabs them by the collar again?

I say abandon the self-recrimination, and honor rather than curse the broken pen. Fill the buckets with life’s rich imperfect waters and believe the words will arrive again. Seeds find the fallow field. As Wendell Berry put it, “The unhappiest people in the world may be the ones who think their happiness depends on artistic success of some kind.” I sometimes wonder whether this burden, which I truly believe is self-imposed, is part of why so many incredible artists fall irretrievably to their demons.

Hung Out to Dry

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

I was awed during my recent trip to New Orleans by the sheer number of people expressing themselves artistically in public. Damn, it was good to see all those guts turned outward.

Lots of images stay with me: the dreadlocked teenager in a suit sitting atop a traffic-light box strumming a banjo as his buddies played an upright bass and washboard on the sidewalk beneath him; a tattooed young woman belting out the blues on the corner like some punk-rock Bessie Smith; the beautiful couple dressed in old-fashioned clothes dancing the Charleston as an old-time band jammed behind them; the big trombone player with pillows for cheeks who beamed between thrusts of his bent piece of brass.

Driving home from the airport back in North Carolina, I looked out over the well-maintained streets and said to Annie, “I miss me some funk.”

Not to say that the place where we live isn’t the home of some vibrant art; it just seems well tucked-away. People do their funk in private, it seems, and I miss the places I’ve lived and visited where people pin their souls to their lapels and scream.

I say this as someone who himself is fairly guarded in public; I’ve never been an airplane-talker or bus-chatter or look-at-me-over here kind of guy. But I do share my inner struggles and epiphanies, as long as it feels right. To me the idea of “wearing one’s heart on their sleeve” has been misinterpreted and maligned; I’m not advocating the laying bare of all one’s angst in bouts of self-serving sensationalism, but I do think too few people answer basic questions like “how are you today” with real answers. I say, give me some goods, and I’ll give you some of mine.

But such exchanges aren’t for everybody. Some prefer a life where struggles stay safely beneath the surface. I’ve always loved that scene in Annie Hall when a worrisome Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) stops a couple on the street and asks, “You seem like a happy couple; how do you account for it?” And the woman says with a smile, “Uh, I’m very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.” And her partner pipes in, “And I’m exactly the same way!”

I can understand the instinct to play it safe — it’s a little scary on the ledge. I recently wrote a note to a friend in which I was daring with some feelings I was having; I didn’t hear back from him for a few days, and during that lull (in which I checked email way too often), I fretted over how much of my laundry I’d put out on the line. I read and reread my note, scrutinizing each word to see if it said too much. I was dying for some validation that what I’d exposed was in safe hands, but the silence continued. I ended up regretting that I sent the note, wishing I had not opened the door in my chest where truth comes and goes. Am I a fool to leave it ajar?

The key, it seems, is to know one’s audience. There are some people who like nothing more than to roll up their sleeves and play a good hand of what’s really going on with you. There are others who might like a peek but not a full disclosure. And there are some who would rather not play at all, for a variety of reasons, big and small. I try to be discriminating, but I’m not always going to get it right. There will be times I say too much. It’s in these moments, I think, that integrity truly gets tested. I once told a mentor about a moment when I had revealed too much. “Aha. So they’ve seen you with your pants down!” he said. “Now the question is what will you do in the glare of those lights?”

The answer is: I will continue to be bold, because doing so has freed me from years of shyness as a child and decades of swallowing my truths instead of sharing them. When I pull my own curtains back, whether on the page or in voice, I shed the layers distancing me from life’s messy splendor; when this is reciprocated, the resulting intimacy is an antidote to loneliness. So I will press on, knowing I’ll sometimes get caught on the corner with my broken self fluttering in the wind. I’ll reel it in, give it a squeeze, and unfurl it again. There are people on sidewalks everywhere trusting the world with their mottled beauty, and I will always be one of them. And damn, what a tribe.

Photo by Dion Nissenbaum

The Sweet Stuff

When I was growing up in Los Angeles, an elderly woman across the street named Hattie Hewson made homemade cookies for all the neighborhood kids. Upon our knock Hattie would emerge in a flowery housedress bearing a warm pan of buttery, chewy oatmeal cookies.  It was as if she were doing it just for us, which she may have been — she lived alone and didn’t appear to have a family. Our consistent glee may have been what got her through her days.

In addition to the Hattie infusions, sweet stuff was standard fare in my childhood. I remember spending hours separating my Halloween candy into piles and trading particular pieces with my sister as the arsenal dwindled. After school, there was always a kid whose household was more lenient than mine, and we’d spend hours raiding his pantry until our stomachs would feel like they literally were about to burst. When I was thirteen, I spent a summer at a northern California camp run by hippies where the food was so healthy my friends and I would spend hours talking about all the candy we’d eat when we got back home. We ended up discovering a way to break into the camp’s kitchen, but the hardest stuff we could find was a cache of carob chips. We cursed for a second and then scarfed them down.

By my twenties, my relationship with sugar had become more complicated. When I was teaching high school in South Africa, I began suffering from debilitating mid-morning “hazes”: I’d be in class, and suddenly my brain would feel as if it were encompassed by fog, my students’ questions like vague flares.  Fortunately I saw a good nutritionist who suggested that I should avoid processed foods, especially sugar, because my high metabolism would churn through them so quickly I’d be left bereft. She said that my hazes were caused by low-blood sugar and warned that I was flirting with hypoglycemia. I eliminated refined sugar from my diet and within a month the hazes were gone. I’ve kept my distance from sugar ever since.

Now that I am a father, sugar has returned. Rio likes candy, what do you know, and I sometimes think the sugar industry has conspired with the commercial-holiday lobby to create a constant stream of junk: Halloween is just the beginning; then there are holiday parades where people throw candy to bystanders from floats; then Christmas with its damn candy canes and stockings; then Valentine’s Day with its candied hearts; Easter isn’t far behind with its ridiculous chocolate eggs. I suppose summer provides some relief.  Sometimes I feel like I’m holding a shield over Rio to protect him from all the sugar falling from the sky. Not that he asks for my intervention; a recent short story he dictated to me for a school competition concluded with superheroes saving the planet and then showering the earth with streams of candy in celebration.

Perhaps I wouldn’t care so much if candy didn’t tweak Rio’s behavior. But when he eats artificially colored, processed confections, it’s like he becomes a strange robot with ears that don’t hear and a body that moves in jagged, jerky motions. I don’t notice it when he eats what I consider sweet food: edibles that actually have some nutritional value in them. But give him some Skittles and clear the room.

It’s sad to me how corrupted sugar has become; as Michael Pollan has pointed out, sweetness is actually rare in nature, so humans have always associated its taste with comfort and abundance. I know Hattie’s cookies did that for me. But now confection appears in almost every bowl; I’m afraid we beat the sacred right out of sugar when we learned to “refine” it.

So here I am a sugar cynic, scoffing at the Sour Patch Kids but also trying to remember the wondrous road that used to open up when an adult offered me a sweet treat.  At my grandfather’s funeral in 2008, I met for the first time the son of my great Aunt Lorraine, who had passed away a few years prior and who had played an important role in my childhood. I told my cousin Bob about the icy bottles of Coke and plates full of Nilla wafers that Aunt Lorraine would offer my sister and me every time we visited. She so consistently gifted us with goodies that even now I warm at the thought of her. Bob nodded his head and choked back tears as he heard the story, no doubt recalling similar moments with his mother.

When Rio and I returned from my grandfather’s funeral, we learned that our neighbor Cubie across the street had died while we were gone. In the coming months, Cubie’s husband Ollie began mowing the lawn obsessively, seemingly to give himself something to do in her absence. Rio started walking over to visit with Ollie, and he’d inevitably return with tales of cookies and a few uneaten ones in his hand. I thought about discouraging the practice, but who was I to deny Ollie and Rio the pleasure of this sweet memory?

This Peculiar Stranger

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

A decade ago psychologist James Hillman theorized that children come into this world with much more agency than we tend to admit. Parents undoubtedly have influence, but Hillman argues that too many mothers and fathers embrace the “parental fallacy” that they can and should determine the life paths of their offspring. He encourages parents to abandon this false sense of control and to welcome instead “this peculiar stranger who has landed in their midst.” Khalil Gibran spoke to this centuries earlier when he wrote that children “come through you but not from you, / And though they are with you they belong not to you.”

These are welcome words to me. I feel immense pressure to father well, in part because my own father left our home when I was nine. This works fine when Rio is being himself in a way that is conducive to what we want. But when his exuberance runs counter to society’s norms or even my own plans for the day, I can become deeply demoralized, partially because I subconsciously translate this as a failure on my part. Hillman reminds me that my role as Rio’s father is critical but also limited, and that to expect that I can mold him into doing just what we (the family; the neighborhood; the school; society) want is tantamount to fighting an immense force of nature.

The challenge, then, is to guide Rio into well-roundedness without snipping off his characteristic edges, and to not lose my sanity in the process. On a bad day, I hover too close, micromanaging Rio in the name of steering him in good directions — it’s like I’m wearing a special pair of glasses that magnifies every little bit of Rio I want to change. On better days, I take a more sanguine view of the situation, giving Rio the room to be himself and intervening only if he commits a serious infraction. In these moments, I’m able to relieve myself of the self-imposed “master parent” role and see Rio the same way I might view a friend’s child — delighting in the big picture of him in spite of the messy details.

In Hillman’s mind at least, a laissez-faire approach is advisable, not only for parents’ serenity but also for practical reasons: he believes all the prostrations and interventions may actually end up doing little to change the route of the ship. It’s not that he’s encouraging people to give up conscious parenting, but he is inviting us to surrender the narcissistic notion that we can make our children what we want them to be through some perfect concoction of coercion, incentive, and sweet talk. “Instead of saying, ‘This is my child,’” Hillman writes, “parents must ask, ‘Who is this child who happens to be mine?’”

I saw this in action the other day when Annie, Rio, and I were in Jackson Square in New Orleans. Rio had been a bundle of contrariness all day, his active nature exploding in all the wrong directions. Then he started chasing pigeons. Normally this doesn’t bother me much, but there were so many pigeons that their fluttering made a street vendor look over with what I perceived as irritation. I told Rio to stop; he kept doing it. Just as I got ready to trot out the hard line, his focus suddenly shifted to the very vendor I had noticed before. He walked over to her and asked, “What are you doing?” She explained that she was a fortune teller. He was fascinated, asking her about her tarot cards and the rocks and crystals scattered across her table. She told him he could pick out one of the rocks to keep. Rio proceeded to examine each rock closely, holding it up to the sun and inspecting the light it refracted onto his palm. “I want to pick the one with just the right color,” he told me.

The psychic looked at me and asked, “What are you doing about his talents? Because I see a singer, or a performer of some kind. He will challenge you, but you’ve got to give him room for his gusto.”

As Rio carefully appraised each rock, I thought about what she said. Talent. Gusto. Challenge. Room. So much is out of my purview. Rio finally decided on a mauve stone, and we thanked the woman. Within minutes he was spinning and tossing it on the cobblestone street in some elaborate game he had concocted. Seconds later, he threw the rock a little too hard, and it broke. I didn’t say much, believing the vagaries of his particular zeal will be more his struggle than mine.