Driving Directions

Through unknown territories.

She said, child, you may know a thing or two one day, but that won’t be anytime soon, so you will have to muddle through. For now, it’s going to be like driving in a rainstorm in the dark, when all you can see is the tiny patch of blur lit by the headlights, and no taillights to guide you, and the actual road will be poorly marked or not at all. 

She said, child, I want you to know this, so that you will not be taken by surprise and swerve offroad. But of course, we are always in a state of disbelief, because who can resist keeping company with the secret hope that driving a dream would be an adventure story? This is not necessarily untrue, but most of us get the genre wrong. 

When you’re raised on those feel-good films that validate the trope of the noble quest, with anthem music and sidekicks and breaks for humor, when the going gets rough, it can be disconcerting to realize that you’re actually in a David Lynch film with a blue filter and the sort of musical score designed to remind you––not that you need it––that something is a little off but you won’t be able to put your finger on it and there isn’t any chance of it letting up.

But this is what she told me, child; she said, Listen. When it gets like that, and you are driving in the dark and the weather and the unmarked roads say go back, only then can you know you are getting somewhere. It isn’t like any of the places you’ve seen before, I promise you, but keep going. 

There will be others coming, child, more frightened and uncertain than you are now, and when they find the glow of your taillights before them, they will suddenly remember to breathe. They will think, Okay, and hang on. 

The Practice

A dying art.

To whom it may concern.

A cover letter.

I know you haven’t listed this skill under “mandatory,” but I want you to know that I am excellent at dying.

Sure, we all will be one day, say the jaded. Agreed, but not everyone practices.  

It’s much more in vogue to practice the opposite–– building, amassing: wealth, armor, safety nets. You get the sense, looking at some photo collections––or rather, at how intricately they are framed––that life is a sort of museum you build against death. I get the museum idea, but I prefer a collaborative approach, where Death and I are partners.

Okay, not exactly partners. Death is the director, curator, and chair of all departments. I make copies. Still, in my last formal review, Death applauded my knack for being “pretty good” and “sometimes accurate” as well as having “a clever knack for misinterpretation.” 

Beaming, I say, “I’ve been practicing!” At the sight of my lips moving, Death promptly exits the room, leaving me to my own devices again––which, as I’ve said, involve practicing. 

You read stories? Once upon a time, as the saying goes, I picked up a pen. “Mightier than the sword!” I announced, imagining myself the noble knight. The costume was terrific. Then I read the job description.

“Dragon slayer?!” Oh, no.

This was one of my first misinterpretations. Sure, I found the dragon, but then I took him home with me, foul breath and all. I understand the logic of basements now––or, as the armory-builders love to call them, “wine cellars”–– but, as you might imagine, I don’t have one. When I started this quest, I didn’t even have a home. Still don’t, but I did what I could with these stones. 

At first there was only a tarp above us to keep out the rain, but gradually we made an A-shaped roof. I meant to find branches, but these were scarce, so I had to use PVC pipe and old tent poles, and let me tell you, I do not relish any journey to the hardware store. My main issue with these places is the abundance of people who seem to know precisely what they are doing. Even with my guard up to a level of maximum defense, I must be giving off a look to invite one after another liege to ask me what I am looking for. When I manage some answer, they will invariably tell me what I really need. 

Of course, I don’t mention the dragon. I just say something like “shed” or “addition” so as not to alarm anybody. I have pretty much accepted that I won’t be getting the security deposit back after this project is done. Point being, every time someone explains to me what I really ought to be doing, I die a little. 

But here’s where the practice comes in! I’m right back to business, back to the dragon lair, where I die a little more every time he breathes, because I have no idea what sort of oral hygiene protocol goes with the proper care and feeding of dragons. The cat, who has made off no shortage of lizard tails, doesn’t know what to make of him, and the feeling seems mutual. They keep what distance can be kept in our small space. It isn’t much.

The cat comes and goes whenever she feels like it, so here I am with this fabled beast, and he’s eaten all my pens. I am writing this in invisible ink. The only thing to do when I get to the end of one of these pages is––what do you think?

Turn, turn, turn. And each time I do, it’s blank. Tell me: how is a knight to meet this challenge except by dying again? Then when I finish the back of the page, it’s rip and toss, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the feeding of dragons is that they are very picky and won’t settle for anything but your last accomplishment, however meager it may seem. He lifts his head, gobbles it up, and goes back to sleep, for a little while. 

I’d love to give you references but given the dragon’s flair for consuming whatever I amass, these may be better procured on a word-of-mouth basis.

In the event that an interview is forthcoming, please disclose your policy regarding emotional support animals. Any limitations when it comes to size? You don’t get this good at dying without a lot of support.  

Words for Unknowing

Head in these clouds.

You menace, you specter, you shadow, you––

bear? No, airplane! That one’s an elephant.

You vapor, you veil, you gloom, you mist,

I see you, dragon! Your tail, like this!

Muddle, obscure, puzzle the lot. We name you anyway,

cataloging images like suspects’ mugshots: cirrostratus,

arcus, shelf, roll; towers of cumulonimbus plotting hail.

We can’t resist forecast’s temptation to fate; foretell

this foreboding, foreswear it true.

Shapeshifter of heaven, where are you? Count me

in, you said, and left when we reached nine. 

Our heads followed where we kept losing them. You

were the nightmare horizon, wandering lonely;

hold my unknowing and sing a feather canyon.

We’ll cross ages like you do these skies. 

Melancholy idyll, romantic torrent, ominous calm.

You annihilate language, and still, we can’t keep

from naming, even if nothing holds beyond the

first sound you inspire: Ah! Oh, what is this

but the beginnings of awe, and here in this

open field we fall silent, planting alleluias

and waiting for rain.

On Ratcatcher’s Day

It was the plague. Everyone was scared. Grief-stricken, too, but there was no time for mourning, what with the bodies piling up. They got angry instead, mean and stingy.

According to the Robert Browning poem narrating the legend of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” the 22nd of July was the day that the children of Hamelin were led away by the Pied Piper, as revenge against the townspeople who refused to pay the sum promised for ridding the town of its rats. As a result, this day is known as Ratcatcher’s Day. Learning this, I had to follow what breadcrumbs I could find.

“And so long after what happened here 
   “On the Twenty-second of July, 
“Thirteen hundred and Seventy-six:” 
And the better in memory to fix 
The place of the Children’s last retreat . . .”
–    Robert Browning, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”

The clothes alone, let me tell you. They must have been made of stripes of six or seven different colors stitched together. 

For real? 

Someone must have really loved what he did with that pipe.

Well, those people should have paid him. 

It was the plague. Everyone was scared. Grief-stricken, too, but there was no time for mourning, what with the bodies piling up. They got angry instead, mean and stingy.

Show us the bodies! They said. But he had none. He had led the rats to the river. 

No one paid. So he played for the children next. They followed him and were not seen again.

To where?

Some say a cave.

I heard it was a mountain.

I heard Transylvania.

I heard the river.

Oh no! I heard what happened was that they decided to pay after all, this time triple the amount, in solid gold, and he brought them back.

Where was the last place they were seen?

“Pied Piper Silhouette” by Miki Jourdan on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic license.

It’s called the street without drums. To this day, there’s no music or dancing allowed.

Yeah, but where does this story even come from. I mean, really?

There was a stained glass window in The Church of Hamelin. It’s gone now.

The window?

The whole church. Anyway, a record from the late 1300s reads, It is 100 years since our children left.

It could have been disease.

The Pied Piper as the symbol of death, the Danse Macabre.

Could have been a landslide, a sinkhole.

Might they have been recruited or sold to the German empire, to work the land in what is now Poland?

​It’s possible. There are legends of those who would lure people away. Children of the town could be, after all, a term that applied to anyone, regardless of age. 

What about dancing mania? 

A well-documented social phenomenon, a relief from the stresses of poverty.

Ah, St. Vitus’ dance.

Or ergot poisoning from spoiled crops.

St Anthony’s fire.

Could be typhus.

Or an ancient ritual, long forbidden, disguised as illness.

Suggestions abound. Answers are few. But what is clear is that there were risks far greater and more mysterious than the more familiar illnesses of the body. There were diseases of spirit, of mind, and while it was common among those who preferred pretend certainty over more fluid depths of understanding, to minimize or dismiss certain risks outright, it is worth considering the costs of these errors, the sudden silence that must have blanketed the town like a stifling and otherworldly heat, when it was discovered that the children were all gone.  

Phobias

Any object can become a fear object:
a needle, a flower, the dark.

One of the books I keep on my nightstand, within easy reach of my morning-coffee perch, is The Daily Poet by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano. There’s a prompt for every day of the year. Four out of five times I may read the prompt and go, “Huh. That’s cool,” and move on, and I keep checking. While not all prompts will resonate at a given time, all are technically doable, and there’s a wonderful variety. It is from this book that I developed the habit of checking to see what happened on this day in history when I’m looking for a practice exercise, and also of checking Craigslist for ideas. It’s a gem with a beautifully simple format. Today’s prompt is to consider the theme “phobias,” which is something Aimee Nezhukumatathil does so interestingly in her poem, “Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia.” That sounded like something I could do today, so here it is.

Any object can become a fear object:
a needle, a flower, the dark.
Not the car exactly but riding in one.
Those figures that look human, but
aren’t. Thunder, of course, and lightning.
My grandfather, anticipating this fear, would
announce, when a storm came, Angels! They
were bowling, he told us. 

Some fear books; others, amphibians.
I sometimes have nightmares about steep
slopes. Time itself, the mirror, ridicule. I
can’t help but think these go together. The
confined space. Knees, even. Whole groups
of others: men, women, beautiful women,
teenagers, children, clowns. The ill, and
doctors. Touch itself, the color white, the
color black; small and large things. Death
and dead things; the figure 8. Weight gain,
paper. School seems like an obvious choice;
I hadn’t considered the color purple. Sleep,
holes, speed.

I read the list, impressed with the specificity
of options. Admiring, even, but I wonder,
what is the word for this ever-present knot,
this constant quaking from the inside out,
easier to hide than to still? When small, I
was not afraid of most grownups, only of 
having to become one, because while it
was clear that there would be expectations,
it was not so clear what they were. A common
concern was driving, how it was that my mother
could remember every turn, mostly, to all the 
endless places we went, and still get back home.
It saddened me to know that when my turn came
behind the wheel, I would probably disappear.

Unless! I brought breadcrumbs to leave a trail,
but consider Hansel and Gretel. They were careful,
but the birds ate their intentions home. The fire
of the oven, waiting in the dark woods, this is
what kept me in knots, the way I could stumble
and be cooked alive. But it wasn’t on the list, 
so maybe I dreamed it, as with other things,
Just butterflies, the growns would say, as though what
was happening was the flutter of iridescent wings
of a colony of new-transformed lives, ready to 
fly from this body’s own dark.

The Large Bathers

I celebrate the way that this artist found the courage to keep looking when he could more easily have turned away.

A person much better schooled than I am in the subject of art history recently observed that Cezanne was obviously frightened of women. I thought of his large nudes and my first impulse was disbelief based on the forms he painted; based on The Large Bathers alone, but then I looked again and saw what might have been immediately apparent, had I been less than thoroughly schooled in the superiority of binary notions. As in, an idea that the beautiful and the terrifying live in opposite poles; an idea that an artist’s preoccupation is the familiar and never the unknown; the idea that knowing well somehow cancels the haunting aspect of mystery. 

Schooling in the superiority of one thing over another is a very different thing from being schooled properly in the anatomy of a body of interconnected parts, in which even the poles of a supposed binary are reliant on one another for existence. For example, it is possible (and even likely) to be raised Catholic and read very little of the Bible beyond the red words. But then you look more closely, and you see how he was with the women and with the sick and the dead and you learn much later – by this time, you are actively looking, following a hunch and the wisdom of scholars who have managed not to sever their minds from their hearts–– that the most concise truth in Biblical letters is: Jesus wept. This at the death of Lazarus, when he knew he would raise him–– or perhaps he came to know this in weeping for his friend. You look at this liberator, his patience with the lepers and the new-dead sons, the accused whores left for dead and the tax collectors, and the Roman soldiers, and even Pilate himself who had little choice, and you think, here is a capital-M man, in an actual body, bound to be hunted for execution by the forces feeding on obedience of the same lowercase men holding a jagged rib like a shiv at Eve’s naked throat, and the fact that this was obscured so thoroughly hits with all of the imagined weight and pressure of the first nail.

Paul Cezanne’s The Large Bathers,  Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, posted by jpellgen on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic license. 

Then I look at the nudes again, and I see it, the way that naked truth becomes the terror in the night, how most of the time someone claiming to want it is just dropping coins by mouth into a coffer at an expected time, a fee more commonly known as lip service, which might be more aptly described as the words spoken in the name of an embodied mystery which has been bound and gagged prior to the press conference. I celebrate the way that this artist found the courage to keep looking when he could more easily have turned away.