Hermitism, youth, and the goddess of decomposition.

It is springtime, I have springtime insomnia. I become furiously excited and then, it rains, and I wilt, and my excitement turns to cold fear, and I lay in bed and pick apart my brain, wondering what I am doing wrong and how I can fix it.

This afternoon, while standing over the sink in my trailer, drinking water from an old blue mason jar and watching the rain, I came to a realization-

There is always the same amount of suffering. If I lived in the forest, in a tree- if there was no electricity or plastic and I got to walk barefoot, all the time, in the forest- life would not be awful in the ways it is awful now, but it would be awful in its own, special way. Maybe this sounds obvious to you but I often tell myself that life is hard just because I am in the city, and blah blah blah, if there were enough people living on enough land I would live there and life would be so much better- but then today, drinking water from my jar, I admitted to myself that this is not true.

One year ago I heard the saying “One happy thing is every happy thing” and it struck me like a bell, and made me feel less fidgety. And then this afternoon I realized that one awful thing, too, is every awful thing- that there is no hierarchy of awful, there is no escaping awful.

The past three days I’ve been a little sick, and also depressed, I think, and I missed class and I walked my dog to the library, through the beautiful neighborhood with the huge trees leafing out and snowing blossoms everywhere, and I checked out Craig Thompson’s Habibi, and then, back at my trailer, that is what I did, read Habibi, for three days. Habibi is overwhelmingly beautiful, and if you haven’t read it, you should. It is expensive but if you remind yourself that the library exists, then you remember that life can be easy, too. Also, in my trailer, with the rain coming down, I read James Baldwin, and I started the Grapes of Wrath again. Then today I did writing exercises with my friend Sweethome, in her kitchen, and for our second prompt we each made a list and then exchanged lists, and wrote from that. In the list we had a dead person and I had put James Baldwin in mine, and Sweethome didn’t know who James Baldwin was, so in her piece she had James Baldwin dying on a rocky plateau in Russia, mourned by a boy with wheat-colored hair. I thought it was appropriate. Sweethome is a magical, shiny yoga teacher who makes me feel calm and who appears, as yoga teachers do, as though she will live forever.

I keep thinking of moving to the desert but then I think of the loneliness, of leaving all my friends behind. I think of a wind-swept expanse of cracked earth and just myself, alone, slowly going mad from the solitude. I tend towards hermitism as it is, here in this teeming city of extremely likeable people. There are so many friends I already do not see often enough, and I live less than two miles from most of them. I beat people back with sticks until they forget about me, and then I can approach them on my own terms, like a feral cat. I become overwhelmed, for some unfathomable reason, when people actually want to make plans with me. I don’t know what I am afraid of, but just thinking about it makes me want to lock the door of my trailer, turn up the space heater, climb in bed with a stack of books and my dog, and not leave for many days. I am, as you can imagine, the absolute worst person to get into a relationship with. And of course I tend to date people who want to hang out constantly. And I am always disappointing them, and they are forced to psycho-analyze my behavior in some attempt to find the “pattern” so that they can figure out my “intimacy issues”, as if existence were a tapestry woven neatly of tidy little threads. And the people that I date, the ones who want to hang out all the time, and be married, and have babies, forever, also tend to date people like me, who mostly just want to be by themselves. I don’t know why this is except that it’s the way that everything is.

Speaking of friends, my friend Madeline is moving away this summer and it makes me very sad. Madeline is my oldest Portland friend and also one of my closest friends. For nearly a decade our lives have been parallel, coming apart and then together again, like a braid. When I lived in a yurt on the Olympic peninsula she was my only friend out there, aside from the stars and the elk, who would huff, just beyond the yellow circle of my porchlight. That was a hard year for Madeline, and she spent much of the winter weeping in the pile of blankets that was her bed, on the upper floor of a hundred year-old farmhouse on a dark country road in the middle of the forest. I would visit her, and pet her cat, and sit in front of the woodstove. Her housemates would have made chicken soup and biscuits and the kitchen would be filled with steam. On sunny days Madeline would go to the barn, where a trapeze hung from the rafters and she would swing around and around on it, like a monkey.

Madeline and I met in 2003. I was twenty-one and we were both staying in a small peaked house that got so much traffic from overly-eager anarchists like ourselves that it felt more like a community center than a house, and the FBI would occasionally visit, which I thought was really, really cool. It was summer and Madeline wore short-shorts and a leopard-print top that she’d freeboxed. She was really tan and her hair was wild, like she’d been electrocuted. She carried the skin of a housecat with her everywhere, she’d found it in the road and she was slowly working it with her knife, to make it soft. That’s how we all were. There was nothing subtle about any of us. I, for my part, was just beginning to use freight trains and the fact that I could live without money to prove, once and for all, that I actually had an identity.

Of course young anarchists are the foot-soldiers of gentrification, and so it was no surprise when it turned out that our house was at the very center of the newest hip neighborhood of rapidly gentrifying Portland, like right at the exact intersection of the very center of the most desirable new neighborhood (where, of course, the black people have always lived). And so we were all evicted so that the landlord could sell our dilapidated, one-bedroom shotgun shack (that was never meant to house eleven people), and it could be painted a cheerful green, and it is now, somewhat inadequately, a storefront.

Madeline was also the inspiration for my story Madge and Pansy, which some nice person then made into an audio recording which you can listen to on your computer, part one and two.  She’s the inspiration for a lot of my writing, actually.

Madeline is moving to Bellingham, which is a place I know nothing about except it’s rainier than Portland, and much closer to Canada. And I have a cousin who lived there once, and he would smoke pot and drink coffee and go to the beach and have epiphanies. I want to say that I’ll visit Madeline in Bellingham, in the moldering old mansion where I imagine her living, but it’s hard, right now, to imagine going anywhere that is more rainy that this. I don’t, actually, want her to move to Bellingham. I want her to move to New Mexico with me. I want to take all my friends to New Mexico with me, in a caravan. We can gentrify a neighborhood somewhere in the desert, and start this process all over again. Or we’ll go out into the desert and build our own neighborhood, from old trailers. We’ll have chickens and goats and there will be babies and feral kittens and lots of life and death. And none of the trailers will have mold in them, because it will be the desert. In the desert, objects last forever. Here in the rainforest there is a vicious beast called Decomposition, and she stalks your houses, your buildings, your objects left out in the elements. She injects them with her seed, which is small droplets of water. Small droplets of water to feed the moss, the mycelium, the primary decomposers. Powerful forces to tumble your house of cards. Decomposition thinks that cities are just unruly leaf piles, she works her magic to turn them back into forest floor. We hammer away, prop things up, tie things together with twine. We are faster, more nimble, but still it feels almost impossible.

I am talking about the moss, of course, growing on the caulking that seals the outside edges of my trailer. This summer I will scrub my trailer, and paint it, but for now it is slowly being eaten.

One awful thing is every awful thing, and now, I think, I can sleep.

how to know what is important

Sometimes, not matter how tired I am, I cannot make myself go to bed. I will do any number of meaningless, unnecessary tasks to avoid it- stare at myself in the mirror, walk back and forth, straightening things in my obsessively tidy apartment, look at blogs on my phone that have not been updated in days. I have class in the morning, early, but I have already decided not to go- the week is spinning around me already, so full of objects like furniture in a hurricane, wizard of oz style. If I do not go to my chemistry lecture I may have time to write my paper for biology. If I do not go to biology lecture I will have time to walk my dog, run the errands I desperately need to run, and read my chemistry book. I am robbing peter to pay paul.

I know that this does not sound like such a terrible situation. School is something that thousands of people are doing all of the time, quietly and without complaint. I have been transient for years at a time, sleeping in guest rooms/camper vans/forgotten stands of trees next to the highway. I have lived for long periods on extremely small amounts of money. I have ridden a freight train through Montana in a snowstorm, with nothing but my terrible menstrual cramps for company. You would think that school would be easy for me, a relief. I’m smart enough, although it is extremely difficult for me to concentrate. I live close to my school. Student loans take off some of the pressure of surviving in the very difficult job market that is Portland.

But I want to tell you, that having no money and no place to live is much easier than going to school. Wanting nothing is so much easier than wanting something. Wanting nothing is like enlightenment, in a way, it is like freedom. And because of everything that has already happened, there is a part of me that believes in nothing more than anything. And when you believe in nothing, wanting something is like beating yourself in the head with a piece of wood every day. It’s stupid and it makes no sense.

There are other, compounding factors, that help to make me feel overwhelmed and, simultaneously, stupid/weak for feeling overwhelmed. Why do things feel hard? I ask myself. My life is not hard. I must be stupid/weak/lazy. I must be a waste of human space. A heaping cup up self hatred, flung like a pigeon into the tornado.

I am moving this month. I am moving and I have too many things, things that I never wanted to acquire, because responsibility, even for inanimate objects, fills me with panic, but I did acquire, because my apartment felt empty without them, and I did not want my apartment to feel empty, did not have the guts to live a monk’s existence, to face the blank walls every day until my money, inevitably, ran out, and I was forced to move. They are cheap things, things I got for free, but I have polished them, and they are heavy and beautiful. Now I am moving and they are like children, dragging at my ankles.

My relationship may or may not be ending, and, as my relationships go, that means that the other person is angry with me and most likely will not want to see me for a period of time, and, as my relationships go, I have isolated myself during the relationship, hanging out with mostly this one other person (which, of course, ultimately feels suffocating, hence the end to the relationship) and so when they no longer want to see me (for a period of time) I find myself alone, unmoored from the world around me like a dinghy torn loose from the shore (in a hurricane). This, combined with moving (I have too many objects), financial stress (student loans are not enough and I am terrible with money anyway), and school (I cannot focus/concentrate/I never learned how to be a student/I cannot accept the irreconcilable contradictions of learning institutions/I am taking too many credits this term/I become discouraged easily), makes a hurricane of emotional objects which tears up the small, ramshackle villages of my health (I cannot digest things/I cannot relax/I have no energy/I feel discouraged/I am constantly irritable). And all of this is compounded by the fact that I am deeply ashamed of having feelings/needing help/I tend to self isolate when I’m having a hard time. And of course, while I am being a little dinghy, drifting alone way out at sea, it is always good to remind myself that I have no safety net. I love that my friends have families, parents in the suburbs, strange, tenuous relationships with people with whom they do not agree on things. Ties that go way back, something that transcends their “chosen family”. I love that sometimes, in spite of everything, this is still the case. But I do not have this. I have a brother. I love him but we see each other maybe once every few years. He is in Afghanistan right now for six months, and neither of us is good at writing letters. It’s been fifteen years this month since I last saw my violent, abusive, schizophrenic mother. And I never knew my father.

In moments like these, I am at a loss about what to do. My instinct, of course, is to run- to drop everything- I’ve fought-or-flown my way through life so far. But quitting is not longer an option. When I was younger, sure. When I could sleep outside and eat nothing but dumpstered bread and my eardrums could handle the deafening roar of the freight train. But my cerebral cortex, at twenty-nine, is exhausted, and if I expect to live at all, at this point, it has to be done on different terms. There has to be consistency, and consistency requires responsibility, and responsibility is something I never learned how to have. There has to be commitment, which is a concept that fills me with an awful, black and bottomless fear, and which has always felt like a trap that I must chew my own arm off to avoid. Because to commit to something, you have to trust it- you have to trust that it will not hurt you. Or that it will do its best not to hurt you. Or that it does not explicitly want to hurt you. And every cell in my body is built on the idea that success in life means never, ever letting myself be hurt again. And of course, if you are not willing to be hurt, ever, then there is absolutely no-one, anywhere, that you can trust.

I do not know what any of this means. I do not know what the answer to any of this is. I have my dog, thank god, who flings her little paws backward in the air when I get home and who licks my face with her small bologna tongue. At night she spoons me, pressing her tiny self against my back, making a little pocket of heat. I sleep badly but in the morning I sit in my reading chair and watch the sky lighten, a mug of green tea on my lap. My dog is still in bed, and the tick of the electric heater fills the room. I have a memoir I have been reading and it has been comforting me. I pick up the memoir and I remember how writing comforts me, how writing is the only thing, sometimes, that comforts me. I remember how writing can be the only thing that matters, how something intangible, that you cannot hold or see or rely on, can be the only thing that matters. I wonder if I am living my life or if I am being one of those people who pass years but do not live their lives. I think about the regrets of the dying. I remember that my credit card bill is overdue. I think about the rhythm of sentences, and how in the memoir I’ve been reading the sentences are perfectly balanced, as though the author weighed each one out on a scale, and how that calms me, seeing that kind of care, like watching the ocean beat against the shore. I think about the rhythm of tangible objects. I remember how, many years ago, I was in a samba marching band in North Carolina, how we practiced every sunday next to the railroad tracks. The unsung brilliance of my friends, they way they wrote new beats at night, in their dreams. They way it felt to play drums with people that I cared about. Like dancing. At the time, I thought that those moments would last forever. I wonder how everyone is doing now. I remind myself that I am a bad person because I do not keep in touch. For making close connections with people and then abandoning them. I remind myself that if I write a book about it someday, I will feel better about the whole thing. About not keeping in touch. About not letting the people that I have grown close to, and then drifted away from, know how much they mean to me. How important their presence in my life has been. How much I need them.

light bulbs, chihuahuas, and writing about myself

My new apartment is two square rooms, a yellow kitchen counter, and the hum of the fridge. It is the click-click of the baseboard heaters and the cold blue light of the stark-white walls. I have not hung artwork yet. I just moved yesterday from a one-room cottage with a woodstove to this land of carpet, neighbors, and window blinds. But I had to share a kitchen when I lived in the cottage and I don’t want to share a kitchen anymore. I have some money and I want to live alone. I have never lived alone in Portland. I have lived alone in plastic, drafty yurts, I have lived alone in dark cabins made of logs. I have slept alone beneath mosquito netting in a camper van, I have lived alone in a two-person tent that I pitched, surreptitiously, in a patch of woods next to the highway, while I waited for salmon season to start. I have lived alone on the freight train, and always I have lived alone in the copse of trees on the outskirts of town, lying on my back on my foam sleeping pad, watching the birch leaves flip like coins in the wind. But I have not lived alone in Portland and now here I am, in the City, in my very own Apartment. I must be grown up, or I must be anti-social. I am highly efficient, or I am a capitalist tool, unwilling to do the work it takes to share space with others, and so ultimately responsible for the current breakdown of human community, and all of our resulting cultural alienation and existential despair.

In my apartment, now, there are No Distractions To Keep Me From Writing, and it is raining heavily, so even my dog needs nothing. She is a chihuahua, from the desert, and she does not like the rain. If I try and walk her when there is water falling from the sky she will turn, face home, and plant her feet. Sometimes if I stand motionless, the leash taught, and wait a long moment, her peanut brain will reset and she’ll forget why she’s pulling so hard. She’ll trot merrily for another half-block, before she remembers, again, that she doesn’t like the rain.

Today it is raining and dark, I am tired, and I do not know what I need. I am tired today of my small dinners, my cabbage-and-onion browned in a cast iron skillet, my half-a-lemon, my leftover-chicken. I am tired of reading periodicals and watching the rain in the courtyard. I am weary of the way I overthink my relationship with my dog, the way I look at her and try to puzzle out her emotions, the way I project my own negative feelings onto her (Kinnikinnick doesn’t love me, Kinnikinnick thinks that I am a failure) in a way that I do not do with any human relationship.

I am Tired, I have Fatigue, I cannot Concentrate, and so instead of working on my novel here I am, writing about myself, which is what I specialize in anyway, since it is what I have done the most.

Yesterday I was at Fred Meyer buying a can opener and I found myself lingering in the light bulb aisle, picking up the long fluorescent tubes that said things like “sunshine!” and “full spectrum”. I’ve thought, before, about buying a full-spectrum light box, in front of which I could sit, in the mornings, until I became energized. But full-spectrum light boxes are expensive, and what with my solo apartment in the city and all the money I’m spending on healthcare each month and how much Corinne and I like to eat at Chaba Thai, I wasn’t sure that I could afford it. Then, in Fred Meyer, I saw that you could buy the “full spectrum” tubes individually, and that they were the same price as any other florescent bulb. So theoretically I could just get a fixture and put one of these bulbs in it, and then I’d be all set to get jacked each morning on pseudo-sunlight and slowly turn my sad face upside down.

But then, I didn’t know if the ones at the hardware store were really the same as the ones in the light boxes, and I just looked on the internet and the light boxes were on sale, so I bought one.

We shall see, when it gets here, how it makes me feel. We shall see if it can replace the forest, if it can replace the drip of rain in the fir boughs, if it can replace the infinite peace that nature brings. If it can prop up my chi enough for me to write.

In the meantime, dear steadfast reader, I have a question for you- have you ever used a full-spectrum light box, and how did it make you feel. Was it as nice as cross-country skiing? Did it make you feel generous towards your chihuahua? Were you less prone to eat snack chips instead of meals? Did you feel like running in the rain?

 

Look! I wrote something!

My chemistry homework makes an appearance, as does North Dakota.

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S A D

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It has gotten cold here, sometimes
sometimes it is not cold, but the air is filled with water like someone is misting us
like we are fragile plants that need misting
It has gotten sometimes cold but dark
dark, dark, dark
I do not know where I am
that it is so dark out
where have the trees gone? the sky? the road?
my eyes hurt from non-light
six o’clock feels like ten p.m.
I do not know what to do with this.
I have gone to the gym,
I watched TV on the elliptical trainer.
I do not like the gym.
when I was younger, I rode my bike through the dark, mist stinging my face, grimacing in pain.
I was fearless and brave.
when the ride was over I do not remember how I felt. Transcendent, like I had gone through the oracles and not been shot with laser eyes,
or just cold and wet and miserable, reminded that life is suffering.
My ears painfully red
the leather of my shoes damp
my bicycle rusted.
Now it is dark and I research light-therapy lamps on the internet
with 10,000 Kelvin bulbs
and it doesn’t make me feel any better.
I want to fold up into myself, I want to go blind. I want to find a giant puppy, eviscerate it, and climb inside for heat. I want to drop out of college and go somewhere colder but brighter, like North Dakota. I would have no friends. Friends and light frequently shift on the antique brass scales of my heart.
The country is like a periodic table, light increasing as you go east. I am the element Lithium. I am Oregon. North Dakota is a transition metal and Alaska is a noble gas. I want to go to one of the places that has not been discovered yet, Sunny Ununtrium where the ecosystems are still intact and no-one believes in science. The people who live there talk with their hands and use their voices only for singing. They live in huts thatched with palm fronds and eat coconuts and raw sea-beast. There are giant spiders. But would that really be any different than riding the lightrail downtown, bathed in fluorescent lights and off-gassing plastic? And off-gassing people, who don’t eat any vegetables, who wear too many layers and live in dark, moldy houses. These people have nothing but at least there are cats for them, cats they can feed dry kibble made from the bodies of euthanized shelter animals. Mostly euthanized pit bulls.

I want something exciting to happen. Something really big, like an explosion. Maybe the earth will crash into the sun and all of our molecular bits will dissolve into everything, heat and light and then infinite, infinite cold. I’m not sure if that is better than the park outside my school, where the pumpkin-orange of the maples clashes so well with the grey, grey, sky, and the mist that makes an infinite continuum of the sky. The sky falling down all around us, sifting down, permeating matter and dissolving the trampled leaves. There is beauty here, but there is not light. It is so still it makes me tired. I want to freeze in place on the bricks where I sit until I become a stone and can talk with the trees. We’ll look down at all the people and the bright white glass of the buildings and we won’t think anything.

tuesday and rain and a blog post, after alot of time without them.

Today I cut myself, for the first time. Slicing cucumbers, or red onions, or beets, and the knife slipped and cut my thumb instead, right above the nail. I put a band-aid on and tried to not get it wet, gave up while plunging the spinach in the cold water. Spinach has so much dirt, did you know? It comes from the earth covered in mud, like it was born there. Everything comes covered in dirt. I had to change the water three times, there was so much sand. And a ladybug, too. The roots of trees. Mycelium. Warblers. The whole living world. The spinach was interconnected with the whole living world, and I washed it away in the stainless steel sink, added olives from greece and too much lemon juice. Parsley from I don’t know where. I almost kept crying into the dammed spinach, grateful I was facing away, at the screen window that overlooks the gravel drive and the forest. My own little corner. A damp wooden countertop that collects water in the places where it’s warped. Made from trees that are part of the whole living world.

Somehow I fucked everything up today. I put too much lemon juice on everything. I bled through my bandaid. My stomach hurt. I saw the deer that sleep in the meadow next to my tent. They are waiting there for the tiny strawberries. They are only a little bit afraid of me. They make no noises when they walk, their big rectangular bodies taper down into tiny points, four of them, and the points make no sound. They twist their necks around and look at me. They don’t try and understand me. They don’t understand the universe. They’re just bewildered, looking for grass. Everything startles them. I wonder if it feels nice to be a deer. Maybe it is the same.

I realized that I can’t be angry about working so much and not being able to write. I can’t be angry at capitalism, or even civilization. I can’t be angry because last night in bed, reading Guns, Germs & Steel by headlamp in my tent, I learned that in order to support non food-producing specialists such as candle-stick makers, boat-builders and writers, a people must have excess food and the ability to store it. And to have these things, a people must have agriculture. And historically, the people who had agriculture were also the people who developed hierarchical social structures, colonialist appetites, and war. The more-or-less egalitarian peoples were always the hunter-gatherers, and they rarely had specialists. That is, everyone was more or less full-time employed with hunting and food gathering. So I can’t romanticize hunter-gatherers and wish I could just write full time at the same time. It’s because of hierarchical, colonialist douche-bags and agriculture that we have a written language at all.

It was sunny for a week, and now it is rainy again. Oh, this damp cloud-bubble that is the very edge of oregon. Why do I live here? Why not somewhere else? Why do the people I love live here? Why does anything happen the way it does? I am trying! I am trying hard to love this three-legged life. Sometimes I can’t believe that I exist, or how lucky I am. Other times all I can see is the enormous improbability of my own existence and the irreparably broken nature of this life and all life, even though we are all here, living. I am a wicked mortal, a human, impossibly flawed. I am ungrateful, I cannot appreciate anything. I want to transcend my own skin. I think I am better than everything.

Thoreau, bring me your woodshed. I want to be ready.

happily forever

———————–a   s t o r y——————————–

———- H A P P I L Y     F O R E V E R  —————————

The lake is ringed in gravel, and sits on the outskirts of town. It smells of soaked leaves and phosphorus, and above it, the sky is empty and blue.

I park my van next to the lake, and roll down all the windows. I fling open the side doors, letting in a big rectangle of sun. The sun goes over the beige carpet, and comes to rest on the wooden cabinet that holds my dry goods. On top of the cabinet is a cast-iron skillet. I found the skillet at the dump.

I climb into the rectangle of sun and sink into the captain’s chair next to the cabinet. The captain’s chair is like a recliner. I put my bare feet up on the back of the passenger seat. I am wearing sweatpants. The sun is in my lap. I feel as though I could sit this way forever, my muscles popping like steel cables. I work as a gardener, and my work is hard. At the end of the day I am tired. It’s summer in Alaska, and the sun doesn’t ever set. I can’t sleep very much.

I look at my arms. My arms are getting tan. So are the backs of my feet. At work, I wear cheap flipflops from the drugstore. The flipflops get wet in the water that dribbles from my watering can and slide around on the soles of my feet, chafing the spot between my first and second toes. Today, my feet are tan in the shape of the flipflops. My calves are tan too. I wear rugged shorts at work, men’s work shorts that come to the knee and have a hammer loop and a cellphone pocket. They’re hot and thick. I steal them from sears.

If I sit any longer I am going to fall asleep. I get up and walk through the trees at the edge of the lake. I take off all my clothes and wade in. The water is the color of broth. Through it, I can see every rock and bit of grass. As I wade in deeper, long leafy plants brush my legs. The lake is cold today. There was rain a few days this week. The rain cools the lake down. I drop all the way in, and rise up, and wave my arms and legs around. I lay back in the water. I am weightless. The lakesmell is on my face. I am not tired anymore. I splash my hands in the water. The water is all around me, holding me up with its million tiny hands. I kick my legs along the shore, pretending I am a small boat. There is a mallard in the grasses along the shore. She retreats as I come close, and keeps her ducklings out of reach. There are barn swallows, they fly over me, just above the water. I can see their soft white undersides. And on the lake’s elastic surface, right where my nose rests, there is another layer- the parasols of dandelions, small beetles, spiders.

I swim the whole circumference of the lake. I finish in an hour. I take two breaks- one on a little shore strewn with rusted engine parts, where the lake floor is mucky and green, and the other on a rocky beach full in the sun. On this beach I squat, my arms around my calves, and catch my breath. I pile warm rocks onto the tops of my feet. The last ten minutes of my swim, the sun has clouded over. The wind makes little wavelets, they slap my face. They try to drown me.

Climbing out of the lake, I put the bricks back on my feet. I put the bricks back on my arms, back on my chest, back on my legs. I am still made of bricks but now I am cooler, and cleansed by the lake. The tannins of decomposing forest, fallen into the lake. Duck shit. Fish. Small clear worms that work like snakes through the impossibly thick water. With my bricks back on, the small shore rocks hurt the soles of my feet. Now I have to be a land mammal again. I tired land mammal. I feel like I’m dying. I feel like I’m old.

I take the towel from the backseat of my van and wrap myself in it, and sit in the rectangle of sun, head back, in the captain’s chair. I take a deep breath. I close my eyes. I feel contentment. And hunger! There is the hunger that comes with exercise. There is that. So I’ll eat eggs for dinner, poached in an inch of curried soup. I’ll cook them in my cast-iron skillet. There is a cooler under the seat, it fits perfectly there. I pull it out to make a table, and set up my propane stove. I pull the eggs from the cabinet. I store my eggs in the cabinet instead of the cooler, because eggs do not need refrigeration. I learned this a long time ago, when I scored most of my food from dumspters. I lived in a house where there were always too many dumpstered eggs, and no room in the fridge, what with all the dumpstered vegetables we found. So we stored the eggs in a big ceramic bowl on top of the fridge. They never went bad. But we always ate them fast. I think that is the secret.

The curried soup sputters, and I crack the eggs into it. They cook, but slowly. I spoon hot soup over the yolks to make them cook faster. I flip them in the soup. Cooking eggs is not like anything else, I think. The food smells good. I switch off the stove and put the skillet on the cutting board, which is on my lap, where I sit in the sun of the open door, in the captain’s chair, where I could stay forever. I cut my food on one side of the board, the other is a trivet, and has the dark rings of skillet-burns. I eat the soup with a spoon. I dip cold, stiff slices of rice bread into it. The soup is salty and hot and sweet. The egg yolks run everywhere. When the soup is gone I pour water in the pan from my gallon jugs and put the pan back on the stove. I click the stove on. With a fork I scrape at the bottom until all the food is loose. I pull the skillet off the flame and fling the water outside, into the gravel. Once more on the stove to dry, and the skillet is ready to go back on top of the cabinet.

The sun is lower now and the shadows are long, the way they’ll stay for the rest of the night. I’m tired. I climb into the front passenger seat and put my feet up on the dash. I check my cellphone. No-one has called. My phone is expensive, prepaid. Ten cents a minute. My friends are all far away. I think of going to the library and checking my email. I could read celebrity gossip. Bits of plant matter float in my open window, carried by the air. I pull a book off the dash. It’s covered in dust from the road. The Devil Wears Prada. It is the exact opposite of Alaska.

*

On Thursday there is a show at the Sea Otter saloon- Girl Haggard, an all-girl Merle Haggard cover band. There’s a wedding on the grounds at work that night- I have to set up the big canvas tents, lug a hundred plastic chairs across the grass, hand out Costco mushrooms stuffed with breadcrumbs and tiny glass flutes of champagne. The bride is beautiful. At the end of the night I carry the demolished cake back to the kitchen and set it on the stainless steel counter. The rich chocolate edges are left, the buttercream fluting. The heel of a slice. It is chocolate cake, and each crumb glistens. I eat the leftover slice. It tastes incredible. The buttercream fluting, not so much. I throw away all the cake-stained paper doilies. I wash the crystal champagne glasses. I feel ill. There is a muslin bag of jelly beans, knotted with a ribbon that says happily forever. I put these in my pocket for later.

At ten the sunlight is long, and filled with dust from the road. Wedding guests, driving up and back. I edge between them in my van, the happily forever jelly beans on my dash. It feels good to drive the long road back into town. There are three country stations and a top forty station, and I switch between them. I like Taylor Swift, and she is on all four. I roll the window down. A good wind comes in, and stirs the dust that coats everything. As I round the last bend I can see town spread out before me. And beyond it the Tanana river valley, stretching all the way to infinity or the Alaska range, whichever comes first. There is the curving flat Tanana river, there are the lakes that shine like coins. There is the short, needly forest. No roads. And Denali. Denali is so big it appears on the horizon in different spots depending on the angle of the light. A trick of space. Denali is so big it’s an illusion. It makes its own gravity, like a planet.

That’s not true. I pass the Sea Otter Saloon. I need food in my stomach besides cake. I go to the store and buy a package of sushi with my foodstamps, then park in the lot next to the Sea Otter to eat. The show has started and there are folks milling about outside, smoking cigarettes. They are gathered around a man selling hotdogs. They are young and have beards. They watch me, in my van. I’ve never been to this bar before. I don’t like to drink, but I am trying to make some friends tonight. The men are pointing at me and saying something. I furrow my brow and eat sushi. I squeeze some wasabi on my sushi. Tamari is everywhere. CLANG! there is a noise like a chain against the metal of my van. I put down my sushi, confused. Suddenly, my van lurches backwards.

I open the door and jump out. My van is moving backwards. There is a tow truck behind it, the kind with the big flat bed that lowers to make a ramp. My van is being pulled onto the ramp. Hey! I shout, above the noisy rumbling of the truck. HEY! The man standing next to the truck looks over at me. The winching motion stops. There is a winching motion in my guts.

“I was in there!” I shout. “I had just parked.” I laugh, ridiculously.

“You’re on private property,” shouts the man. He’s my age, wearing a crass t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. His upper arms are soft, he has tattoos. The side of the truck says Fairbanks I tow. “You want your van back, it’s a hundred dollars.”

“I just parked!” I say. “There aren’t any signs! I hadn’t even gone inside!” I think of my cell pone, inside my van. I think of my paycheck, of all my worldly belongings.

The man shrugs, blank-faced, and points to a concrete barrier, two-feet high, that sits at the end of the row. Beaver Sports, it says, in stencil spray-paint. Lot closed 10 pm to 6 am. Unauthorized vehicles will be towed at owner’s expense.

It’s ten thirty. I look over at the bar. The men outside are laughing loudly, slapping their pantlegs. Raising their glasses of beer in the air. Shouting. They’re laughing at the tow-truck driver. They’re laughing at me.

“I don’t have a hundred dollars!” I shout. “Why can’t you put my van back down?”

“Hundred dollars.” says the man. His partner steps down from the cab and joins him. The truck rumbles. “More if we have to wait.”

There is no strength inside of me. I do not understand why everyone is laughing at me.

“You’re not taking my van! What is this, some sort of scam?” against my will, water comes out of my eyeballs and fucks up my vision, ruins my voice. Now I can hardly speak.

“A hundred dollars or we take the van.” The tow-truck drivers look at each other. “You want us to call the trooper?”

“Yes! Call the fucking trooper!” I am shameless now, screaming through my snot, pacing along the concrete. One of the men gets on his cellphone. He is bearded and wears dirty carharts. They could be brothers. I imagine them in their house in the woods. It is cluttered and has no siding, only tyvek.

A few minutes later, the trooper appears. He greets the tow truck drivers by name, and nods at each of them in turn. My cheeks are flushed, and I can’t stop crying.

“I had just parked and was eating sushi in my van and had only been here four minutes-”

“ID.” he says.

I had him my ID. He looks it over and hands it back.

“This is private property,” he says. “you got an issue, you take it up with the beaver sports.”

He tips his hat at the drivers, gets in his car and leaves. The men stand sideways, watching him go. They do not look at me.

“It’s a hundred fifty now, for the wait.” they say.

The thing winches tighter in my guts. It is a taut rope, pulling my insides too close together. I walk away, and then I turn and screech at them, through my snot- “Is this fun for you? Is this what you do? Wait for the lot to close at ten, then circle around, looking for people still parked here, who have no idea they can’t park here? I have never even been to this bar before!”

They say nothing. They are being strong. It is good money for them, predatory towing. And beaver sports allows it. Not every business will allow it.

“You can pick up your van from the impound lot tomorrow,” says the one with the Crass t-shirt. He looks down at the black pavement. “It’s three-fifty. You want a receipt?”

“No!” I shriek. My voice warbles. I am frantic, inconsolable. I want to kill them. I want to take out a knife and gouge their eyes out. I want to steal their tow truck. The chain clinks, the truck rumbles, and my van begins to move onto the bed again. I do not have my cellphone. I do not have my money, hidden under the cutting board. I do not have a blanket. I do not have a place to stay or a way to get to work tomorrow.

“Ok! I’ll pay you the hundred and fifty dollars!” The van stops moving. I jump onto the truck bed and climb inside, find the money, a small stack of twenties. It is my first paycheck. So insurance will be late again this month.

The man hands me a receipt on yellow paper. He still cannot look at me. Hostility wafts off of him like cologne. Things are spelled wrong. Bever sports, says the receipt. My van comes back down slowly on the chain.

“You’re a fucking douchebag,” I say, as he lowers my van. I am cursing him. I am Durga, the goddess of vengeance. A plague upon his household. Unhappiness forever.

He looks straight ahead. “I don’t care what you think of me.” he says. “I don’t care what you think of me.” I want to shoot him with a paintball gun. I want to chase him through the woods. It doesn’t do any good. He is already unhappy, I can tell. The whole world is unhappy. Nothing does any good.

I am shaking. I get in my van, circle the lot, and, laughing hysterically, park on the opposite side. The drivers look at me and jump into their truck, rumbling to life and peeling out across the lot, trying to tow me again. I scream and pull into traffic. I am insane. I am insane.

I drive east out of town. The sun is low, the sky glows golden, like fire. The dust glows golden. Everything. This week I am house-sitting for my boss’s next-door neighbor. They are leaving on a fishing trip in the morning. “Park in our driveway tonight,” they had said. “We’ll be gone when you get up. You can let the dogs out then.” I am headed to their house, driving fast. It is a nice two-story place in the woods. They have a big garden, a greenhouse. Three dogs.

The sun is in my rearview mirror, the clear blue of the sky. I grip my steering wheel and scream as loud as I possibly can. My body shudders. I have no tears left. I open my mouth and scream again, as loud as I possibly can. It is a perfect summer night. I scream again, and the noise terrorizes the empty space around me, bounces off the wind from my open window. I keep screaming, all the way to the house. I pull in the gravel driveway, and park next to the trees. It is around midnight. I step out and pee in the grass. Outside, the air has gone grey. A gentle dusk has settled.

Pulling the van’s mini-blinds down against the light, I crawl carefully under the mosquito netting and curl up on the bed in back. I lay on my side, my knees pulled up to my chest. I make myself as small as possible. I hardly breathe. I shake. I have brought my cellphone with me into bed and I push the buttons, look at its gently glowing face. I scroll through the contacts. I count forward. In Oregon it is three a.m. There is no-one I can call. I shudder. I try to breathe. I am hyperventilating now. I have an ache inside of me. It eats my bone marrow. It is a sort of scurvy made from missing. All of Alaska hates me. And the hate is attacking me. There is no-one who wants me to live, and so I am dying. I am hyperventilating. I am dying. My bones are hollow gourds, my stomach is bottomless, my lungs are echo chambers. There is no-one in the world to talk to, so I am dying. My only friends are the petunias and the bumble bees, so I am dying. My boss is a grumpy lush and I have spoken aloud to no-one but her and the bank teller in the last three weeks, so I am dying. I have no-one. It makes perfect sense. I have ceased to exist. I am dying.

I die until five a.m. The horror of dying makes me shake and sob and hyperventilate. At five a.m. I turn on my phone and dial 1 800 suicide. I do not know if it will work, but suicide has seven letters.

“I need to talk to someone and I don’t have anyone to talk to,” I say to the man who answers the phone. His voice is quiet and flat, like the voice of someone watching television. Uh-huh, he says.

“I live in my van and I don’t have any money.” I say. “I am small.” I say. “I am helpless. I am barely alive.”

Uh-huh.

I tell him everything that happened and everything I am afraid of, my voice squeaking higher and higher like a cartoon mouse. When I am finished talking I don’t know what to say so I hang up the phone. The man doesn’t offer any solutions. There aren’t any solutions. There was only the pressure of my own existence, cracking the heart in two. Now this man has it. He has grown special pockets so that it does not crush him. He carries pieces of many people, in special compartments. The pieces are heavy, but he carries them just-so, so that they cannot hurt him.

—————————————–

In the morning when I wake, the world is empty. They world has gone and left me with its house, and three dogs. A small terrier and two springer-spaniels. A big house, with big, empty rooms. Antique couches, sad lamps. Still walls. Little light. There is a wrap-around deck with wooden chairs. I sit there after work and watch the light move across the grass. In the kitchen I open all the cupboards and rifle through the snacks. Fat-free potato chips, boxes of jell-o. Fat-free mayonnaise. There are lots of prescription medicines. I take them out and line them up on the counter, one by one. For the heart, for the blood pressure, for the joints, for things I do not know and cannot imagine. I open the fridge and eat slices of fat-free american cheese.

I am reading a book on the deck. The book cannot hold me. The potted flowers need watering. There is a wilting sun, and a bucket of miracle grow. The afternoon is silent. The terrier is tied on his lead and he bites at the grass where I peed next to the steps, he bites and tears and rips at it, swallowing the grass.

I unleash the dogs and herd them into the woods. I chase after them. We go running down the leafy path, sticks and plants swiping at our ankles. The sun comes through in bars and patches, the air rushes past us. The little terrier carries a stick larger than his own body, joyously, like an ant. The springer-spaniels bound stupidly, afraid of nothing. We run down a hill, through the woods. I trip and stumble over fallen logs. The mud of decomposition smears my calves. We run fast, to keep ahead of the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes hide on the backsides of leaves, in pockets of shade. We have to run fast to keep the damp away, the coming evening.

At the bottom of the hill is a meadow. A mud path, a clutter of raspberry canes. The ground is sponge and blueberry bushes. Moose tracks are everywhere. We keep running, through the meadow, through the grass, into the woods again. I cannot see it, but below us is the valley. There is the river, the horizon to infinity, the silence of the huge blue sky. I urge the dogs on. The sun or rain falls down on us. It doesn’t matter.

National Bacon Day in the Republic of Zanahoria

I ate bacon twice today. My body is a beast, and demands the pork fat. C made me breakfast- I was groggy, woke up in a black mood, the morning wind balmy, the clouded sky more bright than usual. The knock of windchimes heralded spring. C had breakfast nearly ready before I even got out of bed- a pan of roasted roots in the oven, steamed greens, corn tortillas, eggs fried in bacon grease and bacon, perfect crispy strips of lovely, salted, rust-colored bacon. We sat on the front stoop and ate, egg yolk dripping across our plates. We watched the houses across the street, all condemned, where the new sports field for the college will go. The bus went by, grumblingly. C wiped a hand on her sweatpant shorts. Her eyes twinkled like little lights inside her freckled face. Folks passed in front of us on the sidewalk, pushing strollers, going here or there for MLK day. After dishes I walked home under the weather beating the tree limbs, bringing a rounded soft wind with it and the smell of warming soil. My shack was cold- my space heater had broken. We’d spilled water all over my comforter while playing cards in bed and I’d draped it over the space heater to dry. It’d gotten too hot in there and the plastic dial had nearly melted off the thing. Now it seemed stale in my shack, and there was a strange smell, like decomposing leaves. My laundry was everywhere. My books needed reading. There was writing to do.

I couldn’t write. A nameless malaise sat on my head like a wet hat. I set out on bicycle to get a new space heater, carting it home on my rack, strapped down with an old innertube. Now there was warmth again, and the chemical smell of the space heater’s “rust preventative coating” burning off as I turned it on for the first time. I tried to read, but all I could think about was how irritating and unbelievable Oscar Wao’s sister is in the book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, not that I could write it any better, which of course makes me feel terrible. I turned the book over and wondered how it was that books even got written at all.

There was nothing to do but eat bacon. I was hungry, and there didn’t seem to be any other food in the world that I wanted to eat. I even went to the grocery store, wandered the aisles, looked at delicious foods, both those I was allowed to consume and those I was not. What I really wanted was an entire pint of ice cream, maybe a cheese pizza. But when you are allergic to both gluten and dairy, what do you do? You eat bacon. So I ate my second round crumbled on a kale salad with kimchi and grated beets and carrots. And then after the bacon was gone I suddenly felt weary of everything, again, this black mood like an acrid smoke that clings to my clothing. This day feels old. Tomorrow will be better.

the young Annie Dillard

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Once upon a time when I was on the internet, I found these photos of the young Annie Dillard. I don’t remember what site I got them from, or who took them, which is irresponsible, I know, but I saved them to my computer and I look at them alot. Although I have enjoyed and been inspired by many authors over the years, Annie Dillard has, over time, pulled ahead, and then passed, and then left in the dust, every single one of them, to emerge triumphant as the single greatest literary influence of my life, by a very, very large margin- like how if you make a tiny solar system all to scale, and the sun is the size of a pencil eraser, then Earth is nine feet away, and the planets behind it aren’t even in the same building. My infatuation with A.D. has maybe even evolved into a bit of an obsession, or at least a place where I funnel a significant amount of the worshipful feelings I have towards books, the written word, and sentences in general. And as I learn more about myself, I start to understand more and more why her way of thinking and writing speaks so intensely to me- her achingly florid, densely poetic, and brilliantly philosophical nature-writing tastes, to me, the way chocolate-covered bacon should taste, unless you buy it from the Alaska state fair like I did this summer, from a stand called “pork lickers”- like the best thing in the entire world. And as I think about her, I am reminded of how I was ever introduced to her in the first place.

I had a lover once who lived in a big, rambling punk house on Skidmore street, the kind of house where no-one is ever home and there is bad, half-ironic goodwill art on the walls, and all the heat is lost to the high, high ceilings. This lover lived in a room that faced the street, with big tall windows and a gleaming wooden floor, and she had hardly any stuff- a futon on the floor, a little stereo, a stack of books, some postcards lined up on the windowsill. I’d met her at a birthday fire in a friend’s backyard, and we’d courted in the Trader Joe’s dumpster and along brambly shores of the Willamette below the OMSI, picking toxic (in retrospect) blackberries until our hands were covered in juice and blood and then kissing while The Portland Spirit pulled up to the dock and tourists disembarked along the ramp above our heads. She was the sort to run hot and cold, the sort who might skip town at any moment, more unpredictable, even, than I was. She would stay up late, driven by insomnia, and then the next morning bike a “century” to the coast and back- a hundred miles in a day, with only a banana and a bottle of water. She drank too much, couldn’t keep jobs, fell asleep in strange places without even a pillow, and was devilishly goodlooking. We got off on passing as boys together, on looking like young fags. I took her on her first train ride- along with my housemate at the time, Kristi- the three of us rode the train south to Dunsmiur, California, but in the sleepy midnight hour I missed our stop among the pines and we ended up in Redding, making camp in a field full of stickers and hitching, in the hot, dry morning, back north to the historic railroad town. As we were standing on the I-5 on-ramp, thumbs out, a cop car pulled up in front of us, and the cop stuck his head out and eyed us quizzically. How old are you? He asked me, who was the closest. 23, I said. The cop furrowed his brow, confused. I got a call that there were a bunch of twelve year-old boys trying to hitch-hike, he said, before driving away.

One day I went to visit this lover at her empty punk house and found her galloping excitedly around her room, Patti Smith turned up loud, sunlight streaming in the high windows. After shouting along to Gloria (GLOOOOOOORIA G-L-O-R-I-A) she switched off the stereo and pulled me onto the front porch, where we sat on the wooden steps and she cracked open a beer. In her other hand she held a battered copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the edition with the rolling hills at the bottom of the cover, and the big sky above it. She opened the book and began to read me the part in the chapter “Seeing” where Annie is crouched along the banks of the creek, attempting to catch a glimpse of a muskrat exiting its den. The language was a little too dense for me, read aloud, and as the sentences came from my lover’s mouth they crowded my skull like furry, gently-glowing caterpillars, and I was incapable of untangling one intricate, writhing sentence before the next one landed with a THUD atop the others, waiting to be understood. But I did get a sense, that warm afternoon, that this was writing more saturated with beauty than almost all writing is capable of being- and I was immediately fascinated, if a little intimidated by the slow, thick progression of the book.

I left town, the lover left town, everyone left town, and I never did read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek until September of last year, when I packed it as my travel-book for a cross-country train trip from Portland to North Carolina, and finally cracked it open while stranded at a remote stretch of double track in eastern Oregon under the last of the punishing summer sun, next to the freeway and a tiny, ramshackle farm with a tiny, ramshackle house, a green meadow, a babbling brook, and several brown cows. I was curled on my ridgerest under a short, thorny tree whose boughs bent over and touched the dust, providing patchwork shade and a cave in which I could hide. I was sick with some parasites I’d ingested while backpacking and had only begun to treat, and for two days I waited at that siding under the strange thorny tree, alternately nauseous, dehydrated, and repentant that I had set out to take the trip at all. At night there was the deafening scream of crickets, and the ten zillion stars overhead like broken glass dropped into a well. I opened Pilgrim and read it in the punishing heat of day, and I read it by headlamp late into the starlit night. And Annie Dillard, in that moment, became my best, and only, and most important friend, my spiritual teacher- the only person, suddenly, who could tell me that everything was going to be ok, and why. It didn’t matter, anymore, that I was stranded at this siding in eastern Oregon, that I was lonely, and that no trains with rideable cars were stopping so that I could get on. It didn’t matter that I was too sick to eat, that I was almost out of water, or that I constantly had to shit. It didn’t matter because the universe was simultaneously bigger and smaller than anything I could possibly imagine, and so achingly beautiful, intricate, and astounding, that not even death could transcend it. I’ll die out here, I thought, I’ll die or reach enlightenment, one of the two.

I got out of there eventually, on the slave unit of a train bound for Hauser, Idaho, where I caught another train to Minneapolis, etc. and so on. You can read about all of that on here, in the archives for September of 08. I read Pilgrim steadily, in bits and pieces, as much as I could digest at one time, over the three-month course of that trip, adding in the first two Twilight books around thanksgiving, when I was stranded at a truck-stop in Arizona, because by that point I needed, if only for a moment, to escape to intensity of Annie’s brain, if I was to continue to absorb it at all. I finally read the last two chapters of Pilgrim this spring in Alaska, in Tara’s cabin, aloud by candlelight- and was completely stunned by them, and by the lessons I took from them, and closed the book feeling that I understood, for the first time in my life, the irreconcilably contrary nature of life on this planet. I then opened the book up and began to read again, from the beginning.

Mixed in with all of this, of course, are Annie’s other books, which I have read, or read pieces of, or which wait patiently on my bookshelf, with all the other unread books. I have sought out others who are preoccupied with her writing, I have bonded with strangers solely on our affection for it. I have slipped her into this blog almost constantly. The only thing I haven’t done, is written her a letter directly. Sometimes I think about it. The earth spins, this and that happens, time passes, Annie Dillard gets older. What if I never get the chance to be her penpal? There are other weird connections to her in my life- several of my friends went to private highschool in New Hampshire with her kid, who is my age, and rides freight trains, and other strange coincidences, all of it making the line between Pulitzer-prize winning celebrity and simple humanness a little blurred and indistinct. And what to do with all of this? What to do with the way I feel about her writing? The only thing I can think of is to read and re-read it, and stretch out the unread bits like special, finite treats, and mourn our own mortality, as humans, if only because it means that something as incredible as Annie’s writing has an end, and one day there will be no more of it.

For the moon

moon, october 09 002

Dear moon, I am fading
How many of you are there left?
What are you, moon?
I do not know if you are hollow, or made of solid gold

Dear moon, I am fading. I am not like you, moon.
I fade in and out, I melt into the sea, I rise up again like fields of wheat.
I come together, molten, and burn for a number of years-
And what is a year?
You are a year, moon.
Moon, god of moments!
I’ll build an altar to you,
I’ll throw a black cloth with red fleur-de-lis onto a corner table and on it I’ll put rocks thrown up from the bottom of the sea, grains of rice, and other things that mean nothing.
Friends will bring crystals, and feathers, and lavender pulled from neighbors’ yards. We’ll light ten hundred votives and sink them into mason jars.
Moon, god of moments!
I do not know what you are made of, moon. I do not know if you are hollow, or made of solid gold-
But I do know what I am made of, and I am made of you.