Wayfaring Stranger

If survival depended on passing, I could hold my tongue and hold on.

I didn’t hear the phrase The world is not my home until Tom Waits sang it to me, and I was well into my twenties by then. The track was “Come on Up to the House” on Mule Variations and I repeated it endlessly. It felt like having my deepest fears and most urgent longings sung back to me in a dream. Since the age of consciousness, I had approached the prospect of living here like I imagined an alien would do. The word had seared like a branding iron the first time I felt it, but later, I could not say with confidence that it was misapplied.

If survival depended on passing, I could hold my tongue and hold on. So, this is what I did. Most days I was preoccupied with fantasies of release.

Is it time? How about now?

Meanwhile, I followed directions, set alarms, ran miles, earned credits, aimed at pleasing men, but there must have been some innate alien nature shining through. Too bad, I thought then, when I was still hoping to accumulate enough proof of being of this world that I would be absolved, somehow, of the obligation to hang on. I kept at it constantly because it seemed like a very short slide from stagnation to oblivion.

I dreamed of blinding interruptions, of being stopped by someone who knew how to look, who would stop me and say, There. You are already there. And so I would be, Here.

Not Enough Dream

Holding on to dreams, holding on in a dream, and the question of how we are dreaming.

I used to have a friend who would ask, in all seriousness,

How are you dreaming? like that was something anybody

necessarily did. Like being made to dream meant you could.

It felt like he was asking after a dead friend.

I envied the time he had for these questions.

If not for the alarms, I might have had better answers. 

If not for the constant interruptions to the dreams I meant to live inside, 

I might have had better answers.  Not enough, I would say, 

but I remember one now.

In the dream there are two small eggs in a nest in one hand.

The other hand holds on tight to a bar above a narrow ledge.

Toes curling, too; I wait on that ledge between What and Never.

What and what? Who knows,

––eggs, nest, birds. Some imminent fall or drop implied,

I hold on. What’s next, death? An eagle? Rescue?

I wait, my grip slipping while my wrapped hand sweats.

Who else is watching these eggs? I want to know. 

No answer comes, and I am still waiting, but that

was the end of the dream.  

Still, the same answer applied to his original question,

and it was still not enough, and I was still envious of the

way that someone could take it for granted that they

might follow such visions to whatever dream message

they were aiming for before the alarm shot them, 

execution-style, as we all lined up, backs against the concrete

wall and the relentless clock above us, holding 

for the start of the next day, our tentative beginnings and

the open-air eggs we were forever trying to protect.

Garden Notes, August

Reviewing what it takes to tend to the project of growing something in this world.

In August, remove dead heads from spent flowers, teasing new growth. Teasing new growth, harvest fig, cucumber, pepper. Watch the ants, can the beans, make notes for the next season. Give extra support to limbs heavy with fruit.

This is what you do for a garden in August, unless you are fleeing the blooming fires, unless you are fleeing what will take your life, unless the tending of your tendencies tends in other directions. Still, aren’t we all, always, tending them? Unless we are setting the fires, unless we are taking what others have grown, unless we forget, unless thoroughly spent.

It still seems useful to review what it takes to tend to the project of growing, to review the detailed list of threats that are forever angling to choke out anything that anybody tries to grow, any month of the year. It still seems useful to make note of how there they are anyway, all these gardens and these gardeners, keeping on.

Fireball

There are reasons to envy the unknowing of those observers, centuries ago.

There’s a great deal that I can’t explain about what is going on in the sky, but much of this is because I haven’t read enough, haven’t kept up with the march of the knowledge battalions into lands unknown, spurred on by a sort of manifest destiny, to conquer the mysteries that once grew wildly in the backyard––which, I assume, are still flourishing somewhere, but the armies are long past me now, and I have no doubt that should I approach the land and the heavens I once knew as utterly and completely mysterious, someone would be lurking like a sniper in the trees, to shoot me with an answer. 

On this day in 1783, the great fireball was observed in the heavens above the British Isles. It was faint and blue at first, holding still. Then it grew and moved. The whole landscape was illuminated. It must have lasted about thirty seconds. Someone thought they heard a crackling noise come with it, like small wood burning. A noise like thunder at a distance followed.

It was a meteor procession, we know now. But no one had these words then, so it was The Great Fireball. Weary romantic that I am, I can’t help but envy the unknowing of those observers, centuries ago. The sudden return to pre-pandemic pace has me feeling like the world-weary speaker in Wordsworth’s verse: Little we see in Nature that is ours . . . it moves us not (“The World Is Too Much With Us”). What was it like to study the sky with their naked eyes, to look with no means of expecting any explanation from any living soul, for the fantastic spectacle before them? I celebrate the advances of science to cure what might kill us, but I mourn the momentary pause of recognition at our common vulnerability to something still unknown––not the fear, but the silence around it.

Of course, our unknowing, as compared to that of anyone from any age, is almost just as infinite. But from where I am, trying to catch a breath from the relentless pace of a given week, it seems like a nearly impossible distance to walk to get to the beginning of some terrain still vast enough that, once entered, goes on and on forever and in every direction, into mystery. Even when I know it’s right here, in this space where I am still trying to catch my breath from keeping up.

Supermarket Library

Classics are in the frozen foods. Not by the pizza, though.

Apparently, the public library in Carmel, Indiana is undergoing major renovations until 2022. In the meantime, the collections have been relocated to an abandoned grocery store. 

Remember where you used to find the Pork ‘N Beans? We got Louis L’Amour there now. You can find most of your westerns there. Zane Gray, Larry McMurtry––

How about Cormac McCarthy?

He’s a crossover. Gonna be on the endcap right there, with the tortillas.

I’m looking for Jane Eyre.

End of the cookie aisle, with the Sausalitos and the Chessman.

Right. How about The Thorn Birds?

A little further down, same aisle. By the wafers.

My aunt only wants books like The Notebook. Where are those?

You know the Oreo section?

How could I miss it? There’s, like, twenty new kinds I never heard of!

How about Dr. Zhivago?

Mmmmm. That’s a tough one. Lemme check. Oh, it’s over at the end of thirteen, you know where all those individual protein bars are?

Ohhhhhhhh, of Course! I can’t believe I didn’t think to look there.

Don QuixoteWar and Peace?

Classics are in the frozen foods. Not by the pizza, though.

Vegetables?

Right.

Contemporary poets?

Produce.

Graphic novels?

Candy.

Sci-fi?

Cereal.

Huh, why there?

Do you even remember the cereal aisle? What else would it be?

Travel.

Hah! Where do you think?

Not ethnic foods. Tell me it’s not still called that.

Bingo!

World religions?

Bread.

Dramatic works?

Dairy.

Experimental?

Baking supplies.

Children’s? 

Check stands.

Reference books?

Those are available for pickup. You can order online. 

How about young adult?

Snacks.

Diet and exercise?

Energy drinks.

That’s a whole aisle?

It is for the people who keep buying those books.

Biographies?

Deli.

Can I still get a sandwich over there? I’m hungry.

No, but Jack’s still behind the counter. He’ll write you a letter to order. Custom with stamps, address, everything. 

Can he do emails? I have a list I’ve been meaning to return, but more keep coming.

Try the café. 

The article that inspired this post is here

Counting Losses

What hurts the most, the ones you can list or the thousands you can’t name?

Mondays are hard, with all these losses piled up against all these lingering expectations, and the sleep still in the eyes. Something is missing. Check the listings.

Why does it matter to name it? Will that bring it back? All you can do with a name is add it to a list.

That is something. Look here. Someone has arrived at their location in Lakeside with their boat still attached to the trailer, only to discover that somewhere along the way, the sail has flown out.

Meanwhile, just across town, a shepherd has fled the yard on the same day that Dozer, a best friend without a collar or a chip was taken from the motel parking lot. This near midnight, Friday night.

There are at least three new orange tabbies out there today. Plus, two huskies and a fifteen-year-old pug. 

No, that’s not it. Something else. Look somewhere else. 

Shall I tell you about the massacre of children, the holy war, the thousands dead or homeless? Or would you like to hear about what’s happening with the weather? The fires have––

Stop, no. I can’t.

On this day in 1960, a man dropped from a balloon over New Mexico, and during his fall achieved the highest speed by a human without an aircraft.

What sort of challenge is this? Who falls fastest? People will make anything into a contest.

What hurts the most, the ones you can list or the thousands you can’t name?

Let’s take a break from this line of thought. Tell me about a birth.

On this day in 1920, Charles Bukowski was born. Check this out. He wrote, “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that death will tremble to take us.”

The hope is exquisite here. As if to indicate that the act of cherishing was an antidote to loss. 

It is, in a way. Because at least you are holding it well. At least there is something there, until the moment when the floor gives out, or the hurricane strikes, or the top blows off the mountain that gave us shade in the late afternoon, raining ash on our city of light.

Here’s something else. I think you may like this one, another thing Bukowski said.

All the impossible losses, accumulating over all our cities of light, all these missing best friends and the sails gone to our boats, what is a body to do?

No, listen. I think you will like this.

What?

He said this, too. “Sometimes you climb out of bed in the morning, and you think, I’m not going to make it, but you laugh inside, remembering all the times you felt that way.”

Do we have coffee?

It’s brewing. It’s almost done. Just wait.

***

More in this series:

Beasts of Burden

Have you ever seen the size of the eyes behind those layered lids?

There’s the pulled thread that unravels the sweater, the drop that spills the drink, tiny as a tear, long held.

That’s the thing with tears. Once they start––

There’s the camel that wins “Best in Show” despite a backache, whose keeper, in celebration, announces, “Watch this!” and adds one more thing, so light it seems impossible that any beast accustomed to carrying so much would feel it.

I heard they aren’t very smart. That they have to be led to food. That they––

Of course. You can’t make a creature a beast of burden if you are distracted by its intelligence. The keepers need to believe that they have it all figured out. The keepers need to believe that the camel is fulfilled in their service, that they would be just wandering around, lost and starving, without them. 

I heard they have three sets of eyelids.

And two rows of lashes. They can even close their nostrils against the sand.

Legend has it, they were acquired as spoils of conquest.

Or as gifts, to demonstrate wealth, as such creatures often are. Poets called them the ships of the desert.

Bodies repurposed as vessels, ambitious men could use them, whenever they meant to traverse land they were not prepared to walk. Arriving safely, they would claim victory, tell stories of the journey, and feel magnanimous for leading the ignorant beasts to food.

Then they’d eat them, right?

The carriers had tough meat, but they produced good milk. Better to eat the young.

I heard the mothers will mourn.

Yes, but the keepers, assuming stupidity, will stuff the skin of a slaughtered youth with straw and place it before the mother. She will smell her young. Then they find another small one. She will give the other small one her milk. If the other small one dies, both mothers will mourn. 

Have you ever seen the size of the eyes behind those layered lids? They are as large as half my face!

Don’t tell me she didn’t see. Don’t tell me she didn’t understand that if she could close them against the sandstorm that would blind her she didn’t know to do the same thing when she sniffed the stuffed body before her. Don’t tell me a creature whose role is bearing what others can’t carry will suddenly stop, as if it just occurred to them that doing so was an option.

Not even to die? What about the last straw?

You ever see one die, except when slaughtered? You don’t, you just find the bones. 

What happens, then?

The heart breaks, then the body, and finally the back gives out.   

Then what?

They keep walking. If they can shut their eyes against looking, they can stop their legs from stopping, even into death. 

They keep walking?

They keep walking and they turn into ghosts.

I’ve heard stories.

No one ever sees the body give out.

These ghost camels, they walk at night, still with the packs on their backs. One day someone finds the bones.

Then what?

 What do people ever do with bones? 

Decorate? Grind them into powder, make glue?

Exactly. To hold things together. To strengthen the body.

Medicine, also?

Strengthening, healing, you name it. They use the bones against the breaking, and keep on.

What the Dog Had to Say

About Us Returning to Wherever it Was We Were Going All Day

You don’t have to do this, he told us. There are ways to go missing. I will place the phone in that spot where I hide my bones. It will be safe and so will you. 

We can leave suggestions explaining our absence. That we were thinking of playing a game where we hike through a blizzard with minimal supplies, or through the desert with minimal water. We can suggest that you were testing a theory that you could get all you need from cacti. We can leave visible clues about our plans to to fly over the Bermuda Triangle, and perhaps to various remote islands and mountain towns, accessible only via small planes, and leave notes about the rock-bottom rates we found for flights with independent contractors who used only first names and required a ten-page waiver. We can mail copies of the waiver to those places where you go.  

We can go for our walks at night. You can wear your glasses and your hat and that thing over your face. You can carry a cane, put a vest on me. I’ll pretend I’m your guide.

Let me. I won’t even bark if they come to the door. Let’s hide together instead. We can go under the table and wait until they leave. We can keep them away.

Here is my head, take it. And my paw. Here, let me expose for you my softest flesh. Here I am on my back, is this enough?! I have been waiting for you, take it! You can, you can! You can stay. I will wait. Watch me. 

Strong Magic

 If you start with reason, forget it. 

I need strong magic today.

Here’s a reference. Remember the primary goal.

An experience of mystery.

Now consider this. Most people hate bad magic, but a few also hate the good stuff. Why is this?

They feel fooled when the trick works. 

That’s why you want to make it a partnership, not a challenge. Then it’s a win-win.

What about a puzzle? 

Most people hate puzzles. They’re only for the mind. Without a solution, there’s no satisfaction.

But with magic, on the other hand ––

With magic, there’s satisfaction in not solving. There’s comfort in the illusion of mystery.

Has magic lost its hold?

Hah! No, this is the age of magical thinking. 

But there’s all these beefed-up intellects guarding the gates.

Sure, but people are willing to believe anything on an emotional level. You just have to  get past the gates.

How?

You present something that seems impossible. The intellect wants to explain it. When it can’t, it gets baffled. Then you’re in.  If you start with reason, forget it. 

What about a story?

A magic trick tells a story, but the story isn’t the goal. The goal is to create a sensation. 

To what end?

The point is clarity. You start with confusion, just to get the guard at the gates of the intellect spinning enough to drop his weapons. Then you’re in.

Then they will follow?

Then they want to follow. They want you to bring them home.

The reference in question today is Darwin Ortiz’s Strong Magic, which I purchased a few years ago with a magician character in mind. One of the benefits of writing fiction is having an excuse to immerse oneself in seemingly impractical lines of research which invariably lead to useful insights beyond the character in question. (Related post: Card Tricks and Other Joys of Research)

Cohesion

There are techniques you can use to wrestle free from an alligator, evade a charging reindeer, an angry gorilla, a runaway camel, and killer bees.

You can survive a shark attack by hitting back, a giant octopus by pulling away. Do not go limp. Try somersaults and aim for the surface. If lobsters escape in the kitchen, it’s okay. You can retrieve them. Use a pot lid to herd and wear oven mitts. Grab from behind. 

There are methods, you know, for discouraging an attack by mountain lion Hold your ground. Do not run. Do not crouch or turn.  If wearing a jacket, open it out to appear larger than you are. 

There are techniques you can use to wrestle free from an alligator, evade a charging reindeer, an angry gorilla, a runaway camel, and killer bees. If there are piranhas in the river, you can cross at night.

You can avoid sinking in quicksand if you carry a stout pole. You can smother a grease fire with baking soda.

You can land a hang glider in a wind shear, survive a riptide, drive in a blizzard, find water on a desert island. 

Name another disaster. I bet there’s a way. But what do you do when it doesn’t come? How do you survive the space between calamities? What do you do with the sudden shattering behind the next breath when the laughing child before you, so suffused in the laughter of the moment, claps his hands to announce, “Again!”

*Ideas for this list were culled from The Complete Worst-Case Survival Handbook, by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht. Chronicle Books, 1999.