Saturday, July 28, 2012

The unfairness of perspective

When you roll onto your back and turn your face away I am caught by how beautiful you are, and staring, I cannot help but think what a joke reality plays, that we can't see ourselves from these tender angles, in this blue light, with the setting sun winking through the eyes of the blinds.  Asleep you are even less aware of the metered, measured poems that sing along your lines, the simplicity of your ankles crossed, the narrow longness of your feet.  Beyond the frank ridge of ribs the soft convexity of your stomach rises, edged by its thin line of fine fur, and the whole of your body gently jogs to the pulse just beneath your skin.  My hand rises to touch you, to smooth the spike of hair at your navel, to brush the angle of your hip.  Instead I put my fingers into my mouth and bite them, and let you sleep.

I wonder if you ever watch me sleeping.  And if you do, have I ever looked half so lovely?

Friday, July 27, 2012

9.5 miles in the mountains

Hoped to make it 11, but had to turn back due to ice.  By the time I got back down to the bottom of the ridge my feet were screaming in pain and my head was full of ideas.  There were some places where I stumbled on the trail, one scramble over a down tree that almost sent me off the side of the mountain.  My hands grabbed the trunk, snap like a mousetrap, bent back my thumbnail on the bark, fingers sticking to my trekking poles from the pitch.  My hands smelled fresh and green the whole rest of the day.  It's time for new hiking boots.  The soles are coming right off the old ones.  They'll stick in the mud somewhere and I'll walk on without them.

I feel a lot better.

I am going to kick a hole in the sky.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Confident (possibly without reason, but to hell with the play, see what I mean?)

Through the casement on the stairs I saw a small impetuous ghost slip through the shrubs; a silvery dot in the dark -- hub of bicycle wheel -- moved, shivered, and she was gone.
 It so happened that the car was spending the night in a repair shop downtown.  I had no other alternative than to pursue on foot the winged fugitive.  Even now, after more than three years have heaved and elapsed, I cannot visualize that spring-night street, that already so leafy street, without a gasp of panic.  Before their lighted porch Miss Lester was promenading Miss Fabian's dropsical dackel.  Mr. Hyde almost knocked it over.  Walk three steps and run three.  A tepid rain started to drum on the chestnut leaves.  At the next corner, pressing Lolita against an iron railing, a blurred youth held and kissed -- no, not her, mistake.  My talons still tingling, I flew on.

Half a mile or so east of number fourteen, Thayer Street tangles with a private lane and a cross street; the latter leads to the town proper; in front of the first drugstore, I saw -- with what melody of relief! -- Lolita's fair bicycle waiting for her.  I pushed instead of pulling, pulled, pushed, pulled, and entered.  Look out!  Some ten paces away Lolita, through the glass of a telephone booth (membranous god still with us), cupping the tube, confidently hunched over it, slit her eyes at me, turned away with her treasure, hurriedly hung up, and walked out with a flourish.

"Tried to reach you at home," she said brightly.  "A great decision has been made.  But first buy me a drink, dad."

...And in the meantime the rain had become a voluptuous shower.

"Look," she said as she rode the bike beside me, one foot scraping the darkly glistening sidewalk, "look, I've decided something.  I want to leave school.  I hate that school.  I hate the play, I really do!  Never go back.  Find another.  Leave at once.  Go for a long trip again.  But this time we'll go wherever I want, won't we?"

I nodded.  My Lolita.

"I choose?  C'est entendu?" she asked wobbling a little beside me.  Used French only when she was a very good little girl.

"Okay.  Entendu.  Now hop-hop-hop, Lenore, or you'll get soaked."  (A storm of sobs was filling my chest.)

She bared her teeth and after her adorable school-girl fashion, leaned forward, and away she sped, my bird.

-Lolita, pp. 206 - 207

Going on a long day hike tomorrow.  Going to do some thinking and some planning.

Monday, July 23, 2012


This is not a surprise anymore, but somehow this one feels the worst of all of them, because I went out on a limb this time, I tried something different, I allowed myself to hope, just a tiny bit.

I digested what I could of it, and when the full weight of it settled in me I cried, the first I've cried over any specific, nameable event throughout this entire awful, pointless process.  Yes, I've cried over the general frustration and futility of it many times over many months, but never before has one single strike merited more than a frown and a grunt and updating my spreadsheet with another R.  I guess if there is anything to be proud of here it's the fact that I made it to 79 before crying over a single one.

I said aloud, wailed, "I still believe in this book."  In disbelief at my own stupidity for still believing, in astonishment that after being told seventy-nine times that this book isn't any good, I still know it is.  In self-loathing, because as long as I fail to listen to those seventy-nine I will continue to do the same repetitive, slashing, stupid, fruitless thing to myself, and I will continue to hurt.

You came home shortly after, and stopped me in the middle of my distracted laundry because you could tell something was wrong.  I told you with my slow, stupid, tripping tongue -- how I hate my worthless mouth and my artless voice.  If I could have sat you down beside me and written it, I could have made you see how this is a knife inside me, twisting to get in or out, I can't tell which and the difference doesn't matter.  Instead I held onto you and frantically felt the shape of you, breathed the warm air around your neck, finding solace in the fact of you, who I haven't seen for a week and without you I know I will fracture along seventy-nine cracks and be nothing but sharp-edged pieces.

You made me lie down beside you until it was time for me to go to work.  I couldn't sleep, but feeling you sleeping calmed me.  When I left I told you a storm was coming.  I drove to work with one eye on the lowering mass of cloud in my rearview mirror, crossing the sky as a bar crosses a door, a deep and awful stab of ultramarine blue.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


What do you do with a book nobody wants?  Is it even worth self-publishing it at this point? 

Monday, July 16, 2012


For once, you are up with the alarm.  No flipping your ancient phone open and setting the snooze function by feel with still-sleeping fingers.  Our window with blinds down is a soft glowbox of morning blue.  The timid light turns your undershirt the color of ice, but when I, barely awake myself, lay my fingers against your back you are as warm as always.  Your face, a black profile against the morning, shows the sharp, frank curve of your beak of a nose, the tracery of your glasses.  My hand slides down your spine.  Pilled cotton, old shirt, familiar shape.  And, Sorry, babe, you say, and the bed beside me is empty.  This is all I will see of you for two weeks.  Unless that was really you in your uniform bending over me, smiling, to kiss me when I opened one eye just for a moment and fell back to sleep.  I am not sure I wasn't dreaming.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Heat Lightning

After ten hours on the mic, using every tool we had -- humor, innuendo, confession, statistic -- to inspire our fans to give money to this most crucial of causes, a few of us took a break and wandered outside.  The studio had grown stuffy, packed as it was with supporters and platters of food and Sam's homebrew kegs standing straight and shiny and quiet in the corner like a pair of robotic butlers in sleep cycle.  My first few steps were stiff and staggering.  The tendons in my ankles refused to give fully, and my joints cracked as I moved.  My abdomen burned; I'd had to hold myself perched on the edge of the stool to reach the mic at just the right angle to be heard.  Hours of talking amounted to the best core workout I'd ever done.

In the parking lot and alley we reveled quietly in the pleasure of standing.  We stretched and breathed the clear air; Mike showed me his new tattoo and I slapped it and called it perfect.  The sun was just past setting.  In an isolated patch of western sky it flamed neon pink beneath an anvil of cloud, delineating in dark purple lines the upper ragged edges.  We talked of things that didn't matter.  Train after train passed, just yards away so that each time the people still in the studio watching the blog-a-thon live had to scramble to shut the doors so the sound wouldn't interfere with the feed.  And each time a train passed, we would wander, hypnotized, to the edge of the lot and stand looking down at its progress through the dusk.  The slowblink flash of the crossing lights lulled us.

"I love trains," I said, a little shy, a confession.  "I don't know why."

Becky, smart and efficient as always, proposed a reason or two.  I said, "I think I love them for a dumber reason.  I love them for some kind of awful pretentious literary-writer metaphor reason, but I haven't quite figured out what it is yet."

But I have.  I am just bad at articulation.  I love their contradictory nature.  At rest they are mute and obliging, seeming as tame as oxen.  In motion they are ferocious, unstoppable, with nothing to hold them to their implausibly tiny rails but the force of their own momentum.  And the sound of their horns -- that great, double-note, open-throated blaring.  I spent half my childhood in a town where the freight trains could be heard always, moaning in the background, the mood music of happiness, adolescent heartbreak, the suspended moment of consciousness before sleep.  I slept, as a girl, with my bedroom window open no matter what the season so that I could better hear the distant trains crying, even in my dreams.

Becky undid a little of their magic -- in this time and place, at least -- by telling us that the white shed beside the tracks was actually a huge sound system, and it played the train's horn for it so that the wealthier neighborhoods just south of us wouldn't be disturbed.  "You can tell it's a recording because there's no Doppler effect."  It made me sad to think of muzzled trains, trains with their tongues cut out.  Made even muter and ever more obsolete.  But one, the only engine headed southbound, did bend its call around us, moving so slowly the effect was barely noticeable.  "Ha," I said, to Becky, to the white shed.

The anvil of cloud had expanded and stretched, spreading arms to span the fundus of Puget Sound.  It was a looming purple face in the twilight, but directly above us the sky was still clear, though starless in the lightshadow of Tacoma.  The air smelled of warmth and sea water, of ions and old steel.  Soon lightning strikes fell to the south, great forks leaping from ground to sky; and in one particular patch of cloud across the water a persistent air current threw, every few seconds and for a half hour or more, great flickers of citrus-bright light, deep within the heart of the thunderhead, an illumination as regular and vital as a pulse.  We watched it in silence, exhausted from our long day, weighed with the near-futility of our cause, charged and pulsing with the imperative we all felt, to succeed, to make right, to make a difference.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

High and Tight

It's almost time again for inspection, and so I go with you to the pier.  The barber shop beside the exchange is close and muggy.  When the clippers turn on with their canned muted hum you close your eyes and I am free to watch you without that twinge of shyness I get when I stare at you for too long and you catch me looking.

I still fear sometimes that if I look too often I'll finally see what I see on other men's faces, the faint reproach, the flicker of resignation.  I know I am not much on the surface but there is more to me, not buried very deep.  You uncovered it that day you stood with the Puget Sound up to your knees, laughing.  I doubt you even remember the day.  I do.

The woman with the clippers is efficient, as all base barbers are.  I don't have much time to look.  Your hands lying on the armrests curl in their unconsciousness.  The hard angular apple of your throat gives your neck a crooked appearance, echoes the angle of the constellation of tiny moles below your jaw.  My eyes stay on the shape of your mouth, wide and long and tipped up at the ends, so even as you sit relaxed and unaware you seem to be smiling.  Your hair falls down in great soft tufts of ash.  The barber shop on the pier is a terrible place to tell you how much I love you, and anyway you've heard it all before.

Too soon she's brushing stray hairs from the back of your neck; I drop my eyes again to my reading so you won't know how long I stared.  Outside the wide orange bellies of the ice breakers lean over us and settle against their moorings, and seem to pull the pier into their familiar hulls the way you pull my body to yours, your arm a strong line around my shoulders.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

All Artists Go Crazy

I helped clean out Uncle Al's house before the bank could change the locks.  Big Larry, just beginning to stoop in his old age but still an intimidating tower of a man, informed me in his usual bellow that first priority was the old furniture from Germany and Austria.  Second was the art.  Third, the tools.  And finally, whatever household items could fit into storage when the rest was safely put away.

For a moment I was excited that art was involved.  Paul had mentioned something about Uncle Al being a skilled woodworker and that he painted, too, but I hadn't paid much mind.  Who didn't have an aunt or an uncle who was an artist of unrivaled ability?  Such family stories of the painter cousin or the sculptor auntie always fired up my internal smirk.  The dabblings of these family members never impressed me much.  It's hard to find even a little cozy affection for the amateur hour when you're part of a family whose skin and bones are soaked through with Idaho light, whose palms dragged casually across a wet canvas can bring a mountain range or a table loaded with fruit and flowers to brilliant, undeniable life.  My dad joked about the difference between Us and Them all the time.  "My aunt paints," he would famously scoff, and the rest of us all knew what he was talking about, and we'd smile and feel superior.  Yes, we're art snobs in my family, every one of us.  We're all the worst kind of assholes.  But god damn, are we good artists, and those of us who have minimal skill with a brush or a sculpting loop or words on paper are at least discerning critics.

So I was not expecting much from Uncle Al's house, but the mention of art did give me a little chill.  Maybe there would be something special here.  Inside the dim house smelling of old, old cigarettes I was left, without discussion, in charge of Priority Two: Art.  Because I am an artist's daughter, I suppose, the task naturally fell to me to determine what should be packed and sorted for the second haul to the storage unit.  I walked through the house -- a large one -- mentally cataloging what I saw.  What I saw immediately was that Uncle Al was not your average painting uncle.  His work lacked refinement, maybe, but he had a good grasp of composition and color, and he could handle a brush with more skill than most.

His work even fell into two distinct genres.

One, particularly revolting to my taste but skillfully done all the same, involved bust after bust of nightmare hippie golems, first hacked roughly out of blocks of cedar (the roughs of several new sculptures stood in a row on the upstairs hearth), then finely detailed to bring out grotesquely emphasized lips, architectural ears, unnatural curvature of the neck, huge, unseeing, almond eyes.  Watching them mistrustfully, I wondered what momentous event in the 1970s had lodged in Uncle Al's mind, given significance to these dated, distinctive faces, possessed him for decades so that he felt compelled to carve and carve and carve these weird distortions into perfectly lovely wood.  The more I looked at them, and as I handled them, sorting them into boxes, the more I saw how they resembled the art of the Amarna period, Akhenaten and Nefertiti and their brood of six with their elongated skulls and sharp-edged lips, long eyes and thin necks, bent into strange postures of worship.  Akhenaten was either mad or a visionary, depending on which Egyptologist you ask.  He could have been both, couldn't he?

The other theme was portraits of Coast Natives, painted with a limited palette, luminous and accusatory and everywhere, everywhere; especially one particular sharp-eyed man, reproduced all over the house, staring out from closets, above windows, in Warhol brights repeated along the edge of the ceiling.  I found The Staring Man etched on mirrors and sketched in charcoal, on canvas in acrylic and oil, in books of half-used pastel paper.  I found the contours of his face cut out of flimsy copper sheets nailed to cedar shakes in the shop.  He was everywhere, in every room, another significant flash of some meaningful moment of Uncle Al's life, the feedback loop in his brain, decaying now while his body still lives on as vital and strong as ever.  I gathered up every iteration of The Staring Man I could find.  I figured this might be the last fragment of his self Uncle Al may hold onto.  And if he ever comes out of the nursing home, or if he doesn't, I'll open the box and sit with him, a stranger as everybody is, and watch something come back to life in his eyes.  A memory that deep doesn't leave even the most degraded mind.  I hope it's true.

When the boys drove the truck to the storage unit, loaded with the old European furniture, I sat on the floor with Su and looked through a box of family photographs while she practiced her English as a Second Language on me.  She's getting good.  Good enough to tell me to read the canister of Almond Roca.  "Okay we eat?  No expire?"  I told her it was okay to eat.  She dug in gratefully, "yummy yummy," and insisted I take a few.  As I am now considered officially a part of the family, it is also assumed that I, like everybody else in the family, adore Almond Roca, even though (cliche) it has always reminded me of cat turds in a litter box, though the cat excrement would be more flavorful.  Christmases are veritable orgy of Almond Roca consumption.  I look with horror at the wrapped cylinders under Auntie Angie's tree and know that soon the foil wrappers will be flying and everybody will be stuffing cat turds into my mouth.

I love all the family ferociously, but there are some things about me they'll just have to accept.  I am willing to become one of them only so far, I said to myself, chewing a morose mouthful of Roca.  Part of that resistance will be, I decided, to maintain the asshole art critic inside me.  I can look at boxes full of bizarre wood carvings and stacks of the same Staring Man and I can appreciate the level of skill that produced them, but I can still say that none of it is as good as Dad's.  And I can savor the fact that of all the family, I am the only one, the newcomer, the one who's legitimately a stranger to Uncle Al and to everyone but Paul -- the only one who can read the story in the art, the two threads entangling between The Staring Man and the LSD Amarna busts.  I am the only one who sees that here and here Al's mind caught and snagged, held and repeated.  Here and here are the moments of greatest significance to one person we all call family.  If only there was enough of him left to explain those moments to me.  I would harness the smirking critic and rein her in and listen respectfully to the dual stories of a single life.  If I could.

I found a picture of Al in the stack I flipped through.  A whole series of pictures of him as a young man, sulky and intense in his Army uniform, a familiar blush of fierce feeling around the eyes, as dangerously attractive a man as I'd ever seen.  That young man in the Army uniform had not yet seen The Staring Man, I was sure.

Every family has a painter or a sculptor or a writer.  Usually none of them are any good.  But every family loves its artists, because they are the conduits for the madness.  They are the channels through which all the frightening energy, the keening voice, the imagination unleashed, may flow.  Housewives and slowly degrading uncles going mad so no one else has to.  Once, at the age of sixteen, dog-sitting for a weekend, I stumbled through the dark into a friend's basement and nearly fell down the last few stairs when an amateur painting on the wall of trees with their roots exposed suddenly spoke to me: HELP ME, the roots said.  I flipped on the light and stared at the painting, its thick impasto pure-white delineating the aspens' trunks with a clumsy, unskilled hand.  The words were still there, even more obvious than before, woven into the tangle of roots. HELP ME.  When my friends came home from their vacation I asked them about the painting downstairs.  "Grandma painted it," they said, and offered no more explanation.  I nodded as if that explained everything and thought with a shiver, My aunt paints.

If I can call myself an artist at all -- and that is certainly debatable -- what am I to make of being a conduit for madness?  And what must I admit about my own heritage, my family loaded with artists?  We have no gentle flow of insanity moving through one generous grandma.  We are a great genetic rush of wonderful, terrible energy, a hundred canyons scoured by flash floods.  Understanding this, I am braced now, prepared to meet my own Staring Man, unsure how to fight against him when he implants into my mind and sends me spinning in circles until I have finally gone to ashes.  I imagine one day my nieces and nephews will come to my home and find the trail markers of my own madness, the same telltale pennant waving.  A repeated phrase on paper, the same outline over and over, some image peering out from every closet and cupboard, a ghost walking my halls.  I wonder whether any of them will recognize the repetition for what it is.  At least one or two of them must.  We are of the same blood, after all.

Friday, July 6, 2012


I had never seen you in the water before.  On it, plenty -- on the old boat where you lived, walking the dock with your arms swinging in the liquid light, in pictures of you at the sticks in your uniform, laying into the engine, lifting your boat on a toe of white foam.  But never in the water.  It was an arresting realization, that I was seeing you in a context entirely new to me yet so essential to you.  Like a trespasser I stood at the edge of the pool and watched as you moved in slow motion under the surface, long and stretched and deliberate like a held breath, reaching your arms prow-like and following them beneath the buoyed rope with no effort at all, as if a current carried you.  I felt pierced by the grace of you, the simple, sure motion of your body. 

I am as pale and awkward as a crayfish in the water.  I scrabble at walls, my fingers all angles in my clumsy attempts to steady myself.  Even when I relax and lie back I sink.  We made a game of it, me skittering across the pool like a drunk muskrat in a panic, gasping with my mouth barely above the surface, and without a sound or a ripple you would overtake me, slipping around me like the water itself, only holding me up, not pulling me under.  How you can love a thing that intrudes so inelegantly into your world is a mystery to me.

The water transformed you, lightened the color of your hair and stuck it together in sharp points, a wild golden animal bristling. It shone in the shadow of your chin.  It beaded and ran from the crossed anchors tattooed over your heart.  The sun was setting, picking a few leaves out of the aspen's green crown and setting them afire.  The floor of the pool reflected the sunglow, a mobile, reticulated network of pink-orange lightning.  The lightning struck at your feet and forked over your legs.  I thought, looking at your feet and the sunset flickering over them, Some day we'll be old, but I will remember how he looked tonight, and how he moved under the water, how young and strong and beautiful he was.

I lifted you onto my back and carried you as deep as I could walk.  You said, I feel like we're kids again.

I know.  Me, too.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


I am always up before you, but this morning after only an hour I crept back into bed and lay very still, listening to you murmur in and out of sleep.  You put your warm arm across my chest and in the fog of your half-dream you noticed my chest was shivering, my breathing too measured and rigidly controlled.  What's wrong, you asked, your voice blurred with sleep, and I said, Nothing.  Just the same thing as always.  Don't be sad, you said, and staring up at the ceiling I blinked and a tear escaped.  It was hot and fast at first.  By the time it reached my hair it was sluggish and cold.

I am trying to assemble some sort of replacement future, some goal, some expectation, something that will make me feel when I reach the end of my life that I did not squander the time I had.  I am trying to find some way of mattering.  I am trying to find a mark to leave.  This is unknowable terrain, and very slow going.  Many times I have wished I could just forget the need to hack a new me out of this years-old deadwood, just disappear.  And I would have if not for the sound of you in the morning, if not for the warmth of your arm across my body and the slow but live pulse beneath your skin.  Some days it's all I'm capable of feeling.