Monday, July 28, 2014

Running alone through the dark and back yard happy hours

A packed house is when I feel the most alone. Bar scene, packed house, music blaring, I am pretty well alone. Background noise to the forefront, sound becomes gray, I float on the outside of conversations. I've always felt the outsider.

But that goes back further than bars and crowds. Never fully identifying. Never knowing exactly where I fit in. I remember, high school era, four of us cruising in a car one night and our friend sitting in the back seat next to me looked around the car and said, "Check it out man, we've got a rasta, a skinhead, a longhair, and a... a... a Mike!" And at the time feeling like, well, shit, how come I'm not anything? And then realizing that that may have been the greatest compliment I have ever received. At a time when we were labeling, no label fit.

Among soccer players, I became a skateboarder; among skateboarders, I became a writer; among writers, I became a runner; but was all those things. The thing about it, is all those things, shifts, evolution, I don't know what to call it, happened without thought. It felt more like peeling off some other superfluous part of me to get to what was inside. And when I didn't think about it, it felt good.

But thinking. And man, I am guilty of chronic over-thinking. When I would sit and think about it, the end result was... alone. And Camus is right, if you make too much of defining happiness, you likely won't be happy; if you make the search for the meaning of life everything, chances are you aren't living.

So what does that mean for the outsider, the over-thinker, the stuck in my head? It means happy hour. It means go for a run. It means paddleboarding, skateboarding. It means find your niche, maybe.

Funny things can happen with time. And this came up in conversation recently, where at one point, feeling always a little outside, a bit different, standing within but not a part of the group, sucked, at some point it became the only perspective I wanted. It became what I dug most, that it wasn't any one group. It was maybe a group of one.

And even more odd, when that made sense, comfort in difference, you start to know yourself, and show yourself a bit more, you start running into other folks more and more like you. I think about our group of running friends. On a morning when we would run, I would start out from my house, running through the still dark. Over the next few miles, other folks are doing the same, running alone through the dark. And then we would each come into a familiar glow, the streetlight of the corner where we always met. And there would be four or five of us, together, running through the dark, smiles, conversations, questions, stories, sweat, soles hitting pavement.

And I got thinking about that more clearly the other night, at a back yard happy hour, celebrating/seeing off friends who are moving out of town. And I talked to the elementary art teacher about skateboarding, about Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian," and talking to the brewmaster about Liverpool, and talking to the physician's assistant about malt liquor and Camelbacks, and watching the photographer shotgun a craft beer, and watching all of our kids attempting to pole vault across the yard with bamboo poles, or playing soccer, or climbing on the swingset.

And I looked at the assembled group, the folks and families around me, and thought/felt, yep. That's it. I am not a crowded bar, I am a back yard happy hour.

And this may have nothing or everything to do with all this, but I read it this morning and it is stuck in my head. So now you can have it...

We live by tunneling for we are people buried alive. To me, the tunnels you make will seem strangely aimless, uprooted orchids. But the fragrance is undying. - Anne Carson, "Plainwater."

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Of Words and Souls

I wonder if my soul has words written on it. And if it does, what words are they? As I've been walking through the worlds of Virginia Woolf and Charles Williams and Neil Gaiman, I always have a book of poetry going. Poetry where a poet, in the space of a page, can make me ponder love, life, the Cosmos, loss, sex, our place in the Universe and Nature, the color blue, mythology, history, God. Maybe in the space of three stanzas. Can do what it takes novelists 500 pages to do. Condense the soul into words, just a few, and make it speak.

Because a poem is made up of words, speech is how the soul is embodied. (Frank Bidart, from an interview at the end of "Metaphysical Dog.")

Sometimes when I read something that someone I know writes, I can hear their voice saying their words. At its best, I feel like my writing has my voice, my speech, my soul embedded in it. You want to see what my soul looks like? Can you see it in my eyes? Is my soul blue? Or could I better show it in something I've written, something that feels like everything I have to say, or have said yet. Can my soul live on a page, or on a screen, separate from me, created by itself? Or can you hear it in my voice? Tricky fu**ers, these souls. How can we get our arms around them?

Whatever it takes to get the whole soul into a poem. (Bidart, same interview)

Last evening, we were sitting on a dock on the Tred Avon River. A heron flew by overhead and landed by the shore. We have established that herons do enough for me that I have one tattooed on my arm. I've talked about herons as my spirit animal on here before. Watching a heron fly, with its legs kicked back long behind it; then watching it transition, ungracefully to land; and then to see them still, balanced, stoic in the water. I wonder if something outside of you, observed by you, can speak your soul? I wonder if my soul could be captured in that clumsy transition from air to water, when the legs come down and arrest forward momentum, both looking improbable, but working every time. My ungraceful, improbable, functional soul.

The words, like a bonfire encased
in glass, glowed on the horizon.

Can a soul be contained in words? Are words written on the soul of one who writes? If words are connected to the soul, maybe they would look like a bonfire encased in glass, glow(ing) on the horizon.

But I think Bidart's right. That's the creative struggle. To get the whole soul into the poem, the painting, the art. Maybe words, maybe art, maybe love is how the soul speaks to another or to itself.

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Real Cool Hand

Life's mysteries start to reveal themselves when you discuss "Cool Hand Luke." It just happens that way. Maybe because Paul Newman was a bad ass. Maybe because one of the all-time great movies is just packed full of an attitude that most of us could use a whole lot more of.

The title scene of the movie, Newman and some other inmates are playing poker. The betting is getting high. People are folding rather than chancing losing. Newman keeps going all in. Wins the hand. When he shows his cards, he had nothing. He bluffed his way through it. His friend calls him out for having nothing. Newman pops a beer and says one of the greatest lines ever spoken on screen:

"Sometimes nothin' is a real cool hand."

I have heard folks complain about the hand, the cards life dealt them. Not third world country poor folks, not homeless folks, but folks who have things in their lives that some would kill for. But more to the point, it's not about the cards you were dealt, but how you play them; what you do with them.

If life is a poker game (and not a box of chocolates) and you get crap cards and fold right off, then you have no one to blame but yourself. Play them for everything you can. Because you know what? Maybe the person with the best hand is afraid to lose, afraid to play it. It's not the cards, it's the attitude. It's what you do with what you've got.

And that got me to thinking, about the cards we are dealt, Life cards. Maybe that's God as dealer's big joke. Maybe we are all dealt EXACTLY the same hand of cards. And we all walk around with them close to the vest, letting only ourselves see them. When if we play them, we learn we don't lose. These are meta cards people, you're not playing for the cash in your wallet.

Newman's attitude in Cool Hand Luke made being in prison an adventure for him and those around him. He didn't mope around and go into a funk. He ate 50 eggs. He boxed the biggest dude there and wouldn't quit. He won a poker game with a nothing hand.

What if we brought more of that attitude to our own lives? What if we had the stones/balls/guts to play our hand to the fullest? We could learn a bit from Lucas Jackson. Play your cards, whatever they are, and what they are likely won't matter. It's in the playing.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Hubris, Geography, Dreams

I learned the word hubris in third grade. It has stuck with me since. I remembered it as meaning "excessive pride." It's been the downfall of mythological, historic, and fictional characters for as long as stories have been told. Hubris and karma are not the same thing. I'm not sure they're even kissing cousins.

Hubris rears its head in my life plenty. Whenever I'm outgrowing my britches, feeling larger than life. It's like an existential gut check, reminding me that I'm not all that. A little humble pie goes well with morning coffee. Maybe hubris is like a tea kettle with the water at a rolling boil; it's got no choice but to whistle to let it out.

And the hubris whistle says, "Stay humble, my friends."

Some of my reading has brought hubris back into focus. Characters in Neil Gaiman's "Sandman," who want to capture Death, to live forever, and end up summoning Dream and keeping him locked up for 75 years. And when he gets free, he goes about setting things right. There are all kinds of similar story lines. It's the Faust story retold, where someone wants more power, more knowledge, doesn't want to abide by the balance that life seems to move towards. They want to be outside the rules. In life and literature, it rarely ends up well.

Geography has been on my mind of late. The mountains, the beach, cabins, beach houses, New England, the South, the Eastern Shore. Maybe it's a restless leg syndrome of the soul. Wanderlust. Maybe it's being in the same place for too long. Maybe it's feeling like I have burned a path from Easton to DC that my car or truck would drive on their own, without me touching the steering wheel. You've seen what taking the same path too many times does to grass. It's not there to tell you about it.

The last several months of my life has been about change. A life revolution. Except that it hasn't. There is a stasis. Mentally things are different, except they aren't. But I'm also wary of hubris. Don't get too full of myself. Don't overreach. There is something to be said for familiarity. I've seen it when running the same route, of how much can be different, with the right eyes.

Ultimately, at the moment, hubris and geography and dreams combine to want something simple. Maybe a wee bit of solitude at a surf shelter like this one. Read, write, split firewood, try not to break my ribs surfing, cook simply, eat simply, walk and run through the woods. Recharge. And hey, there's a sauna. Sabbatical. Sanctuary.

Long live Cabin Porn for helping dreamers keep it simple, and be humbled by humanity's lowly role in nature's magnificence.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Fire, Phoenix, Fork

I'm not going to set anything on fire. Not in real life. It's a figurative fire, we're talking Meta-fire here. Maybe.

Astrology is not nearly as cool a word as alchemy. Everyone knows, speaking Zodiac, what their sign is. An April 8 guy like myself, Aries. But if you change glasses and look into alchemical signs, you're exploring things a bit differently. Alchemists go back to the elements: air, fire, water, earth. An Aries like myself is fire as an element, fire representing action and creativity perhaps.

Once you've got your element figured, you look at modalities: beginning/initiation (cardinal), middle/sustaining (fixed), and end/change (mutable). So sticking with Aries, you're talking beginning of the spring season, Aries is Cardinal Fire. Maybe that explains me getting divebombed by cardinals during my runs? ;)

It's funny to think of fire having spent most of my life by the water. Then again, I intuitively feel like an outsider almost anywhere I go, on the fringes, the edges, looking in, looking out. Just out of place. Fire at a water party.

But fire has been on my mind a lot lately. Creative fire, but also destructive fire. And the way I've been pondering it, is best embodied by a legend/myth I learned as a kid: the phoenix. The phoenix is a great fiery bird, who is born of the ashes of the one before it. It is created from the ashes, the death of the one before it. It rises, is reborn. But you don't have the fiery new life without the incineration of the old one.

That is what this spring and summer has felt like. The ending of something, the rebirth, the beginning of something else. And so I'm thinking shit like that, minding my own business, and the album of the last few months for me has been Audioslave's first album, self-titled. And I'm driving to work, listening to "Show Me How to Live," and snag this thought from Mr. Cornell:

And in your final hours I will stand, ready to begin

And I happened to be pondering the phoenix (which will be a future tattoo by the way) when I heard that, and the cycle, the end and ready to begin. So there's that.

The other album that's been getting some air from me is Jack White's "Lazaretto." Typical White: lo-fi, raw, uneven, Nashville in places, tangential in others. Guitar and piano and lyrics that frequently make you think. And as White is singing along, he throws this gem out there as a way to woo a lady perhaps:

Put a fork in the road with me.

And, hold up, what? Instead of choosing a direction at a fork in the road, PUT a fork in the road. And man, I dig the hell out of that. Let's create possibilities. Let's expand things. Create choices. Not limit ourselves, expand ourselves. And I dig that.

So that's what the coffee says the last couple mornings. Cardinal Fire. Beginnings. Endings. Beginnings out of Endings. Phoenixes. Big-ass fiery mythical birds. Screaming guitar riffs. And putting forks in roads. Possibilities. All towards the creative unfolding of how things go. Set it off.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Invaded by the Marvelous

I could watch Emily Blunt peel potatoes. Last night I got pulled in to "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen." Maybe it's a chick flick. Or maybe it's a fishing movie that also has Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) in it. I'll go with the latter to try to hold on to my man card, loosely.

But something, a line, a thought, struck me. I had been thinking about it earlier in the day, the week, the month, a lifetime.

"She thinks I am genetically programmed to return to dull, pedestrian life," Dr. Alfred Jones (Obi-Wan McGregor) says. The movie is set up with Blunt, McGregor and a sheik trying to do something theoretically possible, likely impossible, possibly making no difference. An act of hubris? Maybe. But an act, of difference, of passion, of eccentricity. An act of faith. An act in the face of dull, pedestrian life.

Rewind a bit. I was thinking of the novels of Charles Williams. His "Greater Trumps" is one of the few academic things I remember from N.C. State. He was tight with Tolkien, T.S. Eliot, and C.S. Lewis. Of Williams' novels, Lewis remarked, "He is writing that sort of book in which we begin by saying, let us suppose that this everyday world were at some point invaded by the marvelous."

Invaded by the marvelous. Boom. There it is. One, a word (marvelous) we should use more often, with or without a Billy Crystal accent. Two, what life lacks unless we look for it. The marvelous.

Rewind a bit further. I am sitting on the back porch Saturday morning, reading Virginia Woolf's "The Waves." The thoughts of one of her characters, Rhoda, go into a sort of ecstatic reverie. It's sustained over two pages, gaining speed with something like, "I see the side of a cup like a mountain... and the brightness on the side of that jug like a crack in darkness with wonder and terror." And then she cranks it up into this:

Yet there are moments when the walls of the mind grow thin; when nothing is unabsorbed, and I could fancy that we might blow so vast a bubble that the sun might set and rise in it and we might take the blue of midday and the black of midnight and be cast off and escape from here and now.

The marvelous. It's what McGregor and Blunt need. It's what Williams dreams up. It is what Rhoda, and maybe Woolf, saw in the everyday. The marvelous can stomp out the dull and pedestrian. Instead of staring sullenly ahead, we might marvel. We might marvel.

Where I want to part ways with Williams and Lewis is the "invaded" part. If we wait to be invaded by the marvelous, we might wind up waiting for Godot. We might spend too much time looking at our watches. We might not seek out the marvelous. We might not look for it, we might miss it standing right in front of us, trying to pull us out of our fu**ing pedestrian ruts.

If you're lucky, maybe you will be invaded by the marvelous. Or maybe you can set out. Instead of marvelous, go active, make it a verb. Marvel.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Pissing in a Slow-Draining Shower: A Monologue As if Told by Sam Elliott

Karma gathers. It hangs around. It's like pissing in a slow-draining shower: it feels good at first, but you just end up standing in your own mess.

It's a lot smarter to piss outside under the stars. That puts your mess in perspective. Head cocked back, steam rising off the ground, measuring yourself with the cosmos. Your piss is soaked into the dirt, no worse for wear.

Karma doesn't care about your morals. Morals come in and out of fashion like bell-bottomed slacks. Karma cares about your soul; your core and what you know there.

I blame jazz music. Songs used to have beginnings, endings, choruses and words. They were clear. Then you take the best musicians and they start improvising. No plan to speak of; they don't know where they're going. Form gets ambiguous, goes out the door. People listen and lose their bearings.

But karma has Santa Claus eyes. It knows your dark secrets, standing over top of you while you sleep, with its big, black boot on your sternum and a bag full of retribution.

That boot can feel heavy if you've filled Karma Claus's bag full for him.

You wanna breath again? Get right with your soul. Don't ask permission or forgiveness. You can't know another's soul, so trying to do what's right for them is like hiking in high heel shoes that aren't your size.

You want that boot off your chest? Don't fill the bag. Know your soul and do right by it.

And next time, piss under the stars.