Considering the message board as installation piece––or as altar to a mysterious deity.
From time to time, when I am looking for material, I look for anonymous inspiration on various message boards. It feels like being at a museum installation where a thousand notes are penned on backs of cardboard boxes and gas station receipts: some in pen, some in green marker, others in something that could be ketchup. I like to imagine that I am a time traveler from the Bronze Age, puzzling over this strange shrine, with these messages from the mysterious god, Anon.
Today, it seems that Anon is concerned about the people who do not follow through when they inquire about the availability of motorcycles, and is also very disappointed with this heat pump. They want certain things known, these are enthusiastic points, and want it known that they are praying.
They would like whoever was driving the busted black four-door to stay off the freeway, especially in early morning hours, and wants you to be forewarned that if you have your baby at St. Mary’s, you may be waiting awhile to take it home.
Anon is happy to help, but not if it enables those who take advantage, like a co-worker who never– Not once!– offers gas money. Anon would like an explanation, if not for themselves then for the children, as to some recent decisions. Plus, they would very much like the woman who wore a red dress into Hobby Lobby to know that an encounter by the check stand was much appreciated.
Also, it is written: they are still looking for a few things: an old flame, old classmates, Mr. Thursday, surf girl, the guy in the sidecar in Hillcrest, some help, a missing Siamese, a new home for this bearded dragon, and a phone call from whomever is awake, also looking.
Here was relief: a chance to work with others, toward a common goal.
It’s immersive, they said, but not like being in your life. More like a video game. It’s like a treasure hunt, with higher stakes. You are locked in a house that is haunted. You are locked in a tomb.
Okay, we nodded. This was easy enough to understand, and more accessible than the tombs and haunted houses of the outside, from which there was no clear way out, where you could tell the size of our terror by how rarely we mentioned it. Sure, people were always jumping out windows and overdosing, but if you had the right medication, if you embraced positivity––
You get to be the main character, they said. It wasn’t hard to see the appeal: the promise of solving something. People are naturally inquisitive, they said. We nodded, forgetting the reasons we stopped looking. No one wants confusion, but a body adapts, including to its confines.
Millennials aren’t interested in collecting things, they said. They’d rather spend on experiences. Of course, we nodded. Besides, where would they put the things? Who had a home?
Here was relief: meaningful clues, and connections that lead somewhere. A chance to work with others, toward a common goal.
People like sharing the excitement in a photo, they told us. They led us to a wall. We waited for the first clue. We were standing before the company logo. They said, Smile!
August 23 is considered by some to be a cusp day, caught between dueling energies.
At the carnival, there was a palm reader in a back corner of a big tent. She wore a business suit, carried a briefcase. This was unexpected. There was a big sign, we noticed later.
It’s the Cusp of Exposure, she said, regarding the day. What? She pointed to the date on the calendar. It was August 23. She gave us one of those How Dense Can You Be? looks and explained that this was an in-between day, and everything was in flux.
We held our questions.
Between the maiden and the lion, she said, the salvaged wheat and the overflowing rivers; the keeper of lists and the spotlight-seeker on stage, where the right decision is somewhere between healing a broken system and setting it on fire.
But we just wanted––
Between coastal tsunamis and a mountain threatening to blow, the singing revolution and a warlord on late-night TV, between earth crashing up beneath your feet and a fall from a hot-air balloon. It’s the birthday of the poet and the mathematician, the engineer and the biologist, the sculptor and the publicist––
I think we––
––politician pianist, sailor architect, socialite soldier, chess master cartoonist, bandleader baseball player, photographer priest. . . it’s the feast of the mystic and the day of the flag.
We were just curious, we told her, moving to leave.
Not everyone buys it, she said. We explained about having no money.
No, she said, I mean the whole idea.The day itself, she said, the cusp day. It’s caught between recognition and mockery.
It was a strange experience because we had not been planning on a palm reader. We had not planned on the carnival, either. The point of our visit had been to park by the fairgrounds, to access the trailhead that led to the wetlands under the freeway bridge. But we got stuck between our intentions and what was available. When you’re looking for quiet at a carnival, sometimes the palm reader is your only option.
Well, she said, is it your birthday? It wasn’t, so we left as we had come, still curious and still looking for a quiet place, but now less sure that we would find one.
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.
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.
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)
For those creatures, large and microscopic, that scientists once thought extinct, then found again.
Who is this for? The question was preoccupying. The list got longer. Those who occasionally get a sense of wonder at the idea that there are parts of themselves and others emerging and about to emerge that neither they nor any others can begin to imagine, which will only be known when they are in full bloom; and which may even then, remain unknown, like those flowers that bloom only one night a year.
Who think it is worth something to protect the barely-emerged parts, the hopes not yet breathed, the tiny flames prone to being extinguished in wind.
There was a man walking along a sidewalk in the rain the other day. He had white hair, large white sneakers, a nice-looking windbreaker, khakis, a neat haircut––and a plastic freezer bag sitting on his head, perched like the cap of a fast-food uniform. I saw him and celebrated, “This guy!”
People who sometimes have moments of delight or sudden heartache passing strangers, who sometimes can’t keep from imagining stories about customers if they are working at a register, or about the person at the register when they are passing as a customer. Who look at the hands with the card or the change, who make constant note of the details of hands: their tiny scars, their tremors, their bitten fingernails, their rings, and the homemade bracelets peeking out of the cuffs of dress shirts.
Who have noticed how an overwhelming sense of vividness at the shimmering parts of being, everywhere, may sometimes live just beside a sense that some deadly danger, creeping through it, is precisely the thing that no one is naming aloud.
Who have loved or imagined loving the feel of a costume, and face paint. Of cardboard-sword play and fairy wands; double-dutch and baseball cards, and the magical arrival of an ice cream truck. Who have watched a mother cooking, and wondered about her silences at the stove. Who have watched a father, sitting, at the end of the day, and felt something coiled behind his tired eyes, as though preparing to spring.
For those who are reluctant to embrace the workplace trend of replacing one’s actual face with a bitmoji version of one’s face, for reasons that one can only vaguely (and not without discomfort) relate to the aversion reported by those chronicling certain native tribes, to photographs in general, those strange, not-quite-human, human-seeming likenesses which appear as a theft of one’s actual face––and with it, the connected soul.
Who believed at some point or another, that they might do something more than what their mind was generally asked to do, although they could not say exactly what.
For those creatures, large and microscopic, that scientists once thought extinct, then found again. For the last surviving member of a species, still singing, even when no living mate exists. For the ones just discovered in the deep. For the ones not yet discovered, still so far away.
For those employees of institutions that require large-group meetings, who noticed in the last year, that they often had to turn off their cameras when no longer able to maintain composure in Zoom meetings because Bossman was so funny when not trying to be, whenever he delivered a motivational speech on some Thing of Great Import.
Who find the world very loud sometimes, who want to vomit at the sound of a leaf blower, and who also want to laugh wildly or break into song in places that are eerily quiet, like medical waiting rooms.
Who were disappointed that the first love interest did not propose becoming an item by breaking into song, followed by a chorus of friends, inviting the respondent to reply in song, also a with chorus of friends.
Who experience the world alternately as a series of swords against raw flesh, and as a shimmering wonderland, endlessly remaking its patterns and purposes.
For people who will invent words on an as-needed basis, and those who see faces in shoes, cars, and appliances.
Who is this for? Someone asked me. It’s a good question. I started a list.
I thought of this young woman I met. She wore these knee socks depicting Van Gogh’s Starry Night. And I thought that there are probably many of us who admire her Van Gogh socks but do not have any and perhaps never will because we keep spending our would-be sock money on fresh bread from a favorite bakery, and repeating the obvious at the first bite, no matter how many times we’ve said it before. “Oh. Bread.” For her, for us. For people who make bread like that.
I thought of how sometimes a person will be so excited about a party that they will arrive early and then wait in the car until appropriately late, and sometimes a person will wonder, in the middle of a party, if it would be rude to start reading. Those who, upon discovering the answer to be “Yes,” consider it a moral choice to resist the impulse, however strong. All of these people.
I thought of the people on the pier, fishing for dinner, piling their catch in a five-gallon bucket, who know which bait and which rod go with what catch. Also, the people who tried fishing once because it seemed noble, somehow, who did it long enough to realize that if they could only eat the fish they caught, they may as well abandon seafood altogether and just start focusing on developing some better nut-based dishes. Both groups are on my mind.
I thought of people whose eyes get weary when they are staring into late-afternoon traffic, and who find some moral heartbreak in the way that a person with some power at work can regularly write emails with non-parallel sentence structure, and I thought of a custodian I knew who was never without a book, and another who would moonlight in a band on his sax. These people, I thought.
And anyone who ever felt a little funny about doing an inner eye roll whenever they would encounter one of those “live, laugh, love” home décor placards––not because they are opposed to living, laughing, or loving, obviously, but because there is a gut-level aversion to propaganda in all forms; or who found themselves entirely mystified to meet a person who seemed generally immune to debilitating bouts of generalized melancholy. And I thought of my sister, who may actually have one of these home décor placards in her living room, I couldn’t remember, and how if she did, she would mean it unironically, and it would be honest and real, and just perfect for her home. So of course, her, and anyone also in this category with her.
People who know the feeling of laughing until the liquid one is trying to drink starts to spew out the nose, intensifying the laugh which is now all out of proportion with any sense of decorum. People who appreciate the customs of decorum, how they vary according to context and place, and notice the subtle nuances, who know when to say, “What’s good?” vs. “How are you?” vs. nothing but a long look and a deep nod, hand over heart.
People who will invent words on an as-needed basis, and those who see faces in shoes, cars, and appliances. Who hear voices regularly, in a manner that is neither alarming, nor pathological, nor the sort of thing they’d go around admitting, because they understand people’s aversion to associating with the people who admit to hearing voices, and also because the voices in question are generally entertaining, and usually good company.
I noticed, as I was writing this list, that it wanted to get longer. I noticed, that if I let it go on as it may want to, I might be going way beyond my self-imposed limits for these posts. I considered how much I enjoyed making this list, and decided to return tomorrow, with the next installment of “Who Is This For?”
I keep metaphors on hand like tools for getting me out of tight psychic spaces. Many are regularly useful, like the tiny Philips screwdriver in the catchall drawer, even after they’ve become so clichéd that they would sound generic if I used them in writing. You know the ones, hope as the thing with feathers, and the bright light in the dark room. The beloved as a summer’s day, or the sun. The heart as the always-breaking part, its cracks the places through which some inner light shines. Snow like a bedcover, a partner as one’s other half, emotions like an amusement park ride, the premise of which is to simmer delight with suspense until they boil over into terrified laughter. The dead horse, still beaten; the late-coming blooms, time as a thief, running off with the riches still unspent. Years like a river upon which a body may be carried, against which the salmon might swim. Time at the bedside in the white costume of a nurse of the first great war, coming to heal.
These familiar metaphors can be called up as needed, summoned for the occasion. There’s comfort and security in returning to them. I’ll be the tree; you be the bird. I’ll be the nest; you be the egg. I’ll be the frightened, you be the sheltering wing, here is the basket, now take the eggs. Long road, steep hill, one foot at a time, there are always the bushes to shake.
Until they shake you such that your vision lands on one you’ve never seen before, and it’s like finding a new room in the house you’ve been living in for years. This happened the other day, as I was walking by an elementary school, and I looked through the fence, into the garden, to read the words painted in a child’s hand, in large letters, on plywood propped behind the raised beds, against the opposite fence.
“THE WORLD IS YOUR OY,” it proudly proclaimed, and I almost missed it, filling in the space with the missing letters I expected to see––as I do often, mainly with my own typos. Ah yes, I thought, the mollusk ready to eat, which is a delicacy when fresh and poison when left to sit too long. The thing to be shucked and opened, quivering briny flesh on the tongue, swallowed whole.
But then I stopped. No, it was not an oyster, as this young person had written it. Perhaps they were going that way, and then they got tagged it or something more interesting happened in the adjacent field–– a kickball game or an unexpected kite. Maybe the fire bell rang. Whatever the interruption, the result is clear, and what it leaves me with is a metaphor that’s just right at specific moments when other ones will not do. Yes, I think, wisdom from the letters of babes. The world is indeed, sometimes, just this: My Oy! Some tools are too wonderful to keep to oneself, so I have to write it here again. I’ll leave it to you to decide on the appropriate use.
Earthling may not know why she is waiting. But sometimes it’s like this when the only thing to do is sit and be.
In this scene, earthling doesn’t look so hot. It appears that earthling is just very tired. Always seeking, always questioning. Always trying to figure things out. Earthling gets like this from time to time. They are good at getting things done, but sometimes the thing to do is something else. Earthling is stubborn and sometimes gets tunnel vision. On such occasions, wise woman may visit.
[Enter wise woman. She finds a bedraggled-looking earthling, walking in a dazed manner like they have forgotten what it was that they meant to do. She approaches gently, waits for earthling to notice. Earthling is preoccupied, so wise woman speaks first, placing a gentle hand on earthling’s back.]
What do you do when the walls are breached, defenses crumbled, when strategy is suddenly a moot point? I shall defend!
No, listen. I just told you that your lines of defense are gone. Oh. Then I shall get away! There are lots of alternatives. Just look at this list!
It’s silly to run at this point. Where would you hide, you and your long list? Well, then. I shall rebuild!
Sure. Maybe, but you’re still without walls for the time being, aren’t you? Sigh. Damn, you’re right. Well now what?
Just wait. And?
Listen. That’s not very much. I prefer lists. I like to cross things out, one by one. See? Post blog, get groceries, send that email you don’t want to send, check that email you don’t want to read, remember to run, walk, or swim in body; remember to call, remember to read for restoring of soul, remember to sit so as not to forget point of connection between body and soul, mind and everything else; remember to remember, remember to forget.
Dear, just stop. Stop what?
Doing. Doing what?
No, just stop doing. And?
I already told you. Just wait.
[Earthling may not know why she is waiting. But sometimes it’s like this when the only thing to do is sit and be. She’s practicing.]