London Again

Think of London, a small city
It’s dark, dark in the daytime
The people sleep, sleep in the daytime
If they want to, if they want to

Cities, The Talking Heads

The sun rose at 8:04 am in London on the shortest day of the year. It set at 3:53 pm. A shorter day than Fort Fairfield in northern Maine. Add clouds and rain, and the day seems shorter. Is it any wonder that people on their ways home from work find their way into pubs lit with fireplaces? Our days in London were marginally longer, and after walking through the city each afternoon, we found our way to a pub. The Paternoster, The Old Red Lion, Punch and Judy’s, The Swan, Lady Abercorn’s, The George. Some of these were easy to find, others required a turn down a slender lane. Each was bustling.

The charm of London is found in its strange alleyways, endlessly curled streets, and tucked away history. If there is a grid, and in some way, there is, it is bent around the past and the ox bow turns of the Thames, and everything attached to it has been attached in a haphazard fashion. For instance, the coagulation of insurance buildings in central London: the gherkin, the cheese-grater, the scalpel, and the inside-out building; defy any sense of a rational aesthetic plan. Or the juxtaposition of the Tower on one side of the Thames and the glass pineapple of the City Hall just across the river.

I have wandered down the narrow canyons of New York City, through low slung neighborhoods in San Francisco, across broad avenues in Chicago, in and out of fish stalls in Seattle. Even my home city, Philadelphia, built as it once was, on squares, in spite of the Schuylkill river turning into the Delaware, and the oddly oblong expanse of Fairmount Park, makes easy sense. Get oriented and go. London seems to double back on itself, and in doing so, has folds and torn edges through which a body can slip out of any regular order.

And so London’s history is oddly folded into the cityscape as well. A tour through the city—you cannot tour the whole city, or tour it on a bus; you must walk it—folds two thousand years of history, creased around a Roman occupation, a French conquest in 1066, and a fire that destroyed 80% of the city in 1666. And the city is just the square mile that had been walled and gated, but is now open and underlaced with a rail system that carries you quickly to nearly every point beyond the old wall.

The people who live there are folded too. The streets are packed with diverse faces—a variety of eyes and ears and cheeks and chins that make them all different, and so different from the faces in American cities—and sounds. Their voices carry languages from Europe, Africa, and Asia—all of which are easy (and relatively cheap) to get to, even from this island nation. It is as if a map of the world has been folded and brought all these people here. Scarves are the only nearly universal banner, and men tie theirs tightly around their necks. Women walk down streets in shoes ill made for walking—but that is, sadly more universal than naught.

There is an orderliness to the whole affair. Announcements in the Underground direct people where to walk down hallways and on escalators. Advertisements along the walls of the stations counsel caution with wallets and and advise care with alcohol. “Mind the Gap” is stenciled on the ground where the trains stop, and cheeky announcers corral riders whose fancy Italian made shoes have strayed over the yellow safety line. Cross walks show a green walker when it’s time to cross—around Trafalgar Square the walkers take on a variety of LGBT friendly forms: couples and symbols. Just remember to cross when the green light comes!

In so many ways, walking through London was like walking through my mind–folded and full of associations and reveries. My fellow traveler asked what surprised me most, and I answered, nothing. Of course, the fact of a place like London is a surprise all by itself. Are there more surprises to come, more cities to inhabit, that will fill my mind with visions—or somehow, match my visions? Yes. And, yes.

London Thoughts

History is a story of discontinuous events—events that collide like weather systems or galaxies, having barely understood origins, and even less decipherable records. All the witnesses were destroyed in the collision. What they saw, what they thought, and what they felt—even if they recorded their observations on stone, paper, steel, or silicone, have been destroyed along with them. We are living in the age of delusion, in which we believe in the sanctity of our recorded history—either self-scribbled or captured by another.

This thought is brought about by two things. First, wandering, quickly—this time—through the British Museum (or Westminster Cathedral, or almost anything else in London), what becomes painfully obvious are the gaps. All these artifacts, so painstakingly arranged create an idea that history is continuous, and has flowed in a linear pattern. And then a closer inspection shows that over and over again, things haven’t come that way. There are sudden breaks in history, when entire empires vanish, or when they change—seemingly overnight—religions, or methods of governance, or technologies, and the old gets swept away, almost as if it was a betrayal of the new.

England as it shifts back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism bears these marks hard. Or, reading through the story of Ashurbanipal and the claims of glory made by this king reminds me of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”

Thinking of history reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of punctuated equilibrium—evolution proceeding in long quiet periods of little change, and then having sudden outbursts of change. I know, we are taught that slow and steady wins the race, but, we are also taught to believe in the nature of story as an overarching “way things are.” We see things through that frame, and it doesn’t always support the picture inside—or outside—the frame.

Second, in the musical Hamilton (which was also part of this trip to London), the character of George Washington warns Hamilton that we do not control who writes our stories. He’s telling this to a man who believes in his power to literally write his own story—and to use his words to cement his reality. He can’t—and doesn’t. His wife, Eliza, sends his legacy forward—and Lin Manuel Miranda brings us her legacy. But, as Miranda admits in interviews, even this moment for Hamilton—and therefore, for him as well—is provisional and subject to changing tastes and critical opinion.

Does everything disappear? No. There are 2000 year old Roman walls in London. But Rome? Everything can disappear. And we will tell stories that soften the loss.

I wonder, I can’t help but wonder, what I am doing when I write: whose story I am writing? It isn’t my story. Of course it’s my story–as if it could be anything else. Nonetheless, as I write about characters who are 5000 years old–older in some cases–I think about history, because they think about history. How can they not? How can any of us not? It is everywhere–in the streets, and in the faces, here in London.

Writing for the reader—surprise

When I sit down to write, I haven’t thought about an audience. Often I feel more like an amanuensis, copying down whatever the universe commands. The universe commands much, by the way. You might call it inspiration—divine or otherwise. I have not spent much time trying to figure out “my voice,” as much as I have trying to listen keenly to what comes my way.

That changed recently, and I actually began to think about delighting a reader. I began a writing project with one particular reader in mind, and I sought to please that reader. This shift helped me to shift how I wrote. I no longer found myself struggling to listen for some voice that came from another place. To be honest, I still feel that my voice is only partly my own, I still rely on inspiration. But now, I realize that thinking about a reader was something that I had been missing. For years.

In part, and a big part, I worry less about getting the inspiration right. That has been a weighty burden. What if I misplaced word and intent? What if I failed to capture the muse’s song? Now, all I need to do is surprise, and somehow, please a reader. That is so much easier. I know enough about my reader that I can throw in some reference that the reader will appreciate. Or add some detail culled from our common experience.

As I have written more, I have focused less on that particular reader—for whatever reason—and began to accept that all along the muse, my muse, did not want me to repeat a song. My muse wanted me to sing back. All this time, my muse had been aching for surprise and delight. How did I not know this?

One of my first teachers, Ron Hansen, ends his spectacular novel Mariette in Ecstasy with Mariette’s message from her muse (who just happens to be God). The message is, “Surprise me.” I read that years and years ago, and only now has the lesson begun to take hold. How I wish I had stumbled into that realization 20 years ago. But better now, late as it is, than not at all.

And so, now, finally, I write to the surprise. And it comes. Over and over.

The Writing Process (this time)

This time, I have little idea where my writing is going. I have some vague notion, but with each chapter, I am surprised. Something happens as I write. A snippet of speech. An image. An action. They are there, already waiting for me, like a message underneath a thick film of dust—everything gray until it gets brushed away. And then…

I have struggled with longer work. My head was always full of plans and themes and rumination. I wanted so much, and could never trust the words—or myself. It was always easier to write short things. They were all fire, and almost extinguished before the fire spread. And perhaps that is how I am writing now. Not worrying about the longer vision (even though it is there). Letting each chapter be its own part.

Of course, as I glance back at the early chapters—which I do only fleetingly, let the rewrite come later, when the whole draft is done—I see that I have changed course, developing  elements that were nascent in the first few chapters. But there! Everything tumbling out unbidden.

Fortunately, I don’t look back too hard. And when I do, I see that I have opened pathways to correct my initial steps and bring them in line with where the work has headed. That happened today. I exclaimed, out loud, when a few students were in my classroom, “I know what to do! It was there the whole time!” And it was. And it is.

Is it writing itself? No. I have to carve out time to work at the thousand word chunks. And it takes work and time. Sometimes the chunks are smaller. Sometimes I skip ahead when I get bogged down, but rarely do a few chapters follow before the way through the snarl becomes at least a little more obvious.

Mostly, I feel as if I can just write into the void. It is like letting go of the bar in trapeze. I trust that the story will catch me—or the net.  And if it is the net, then I know the way back to the slender ladder up to the platform.  Once more, and into the air.

Time to Fly

I begin easily enough. Before I know it, a length has passed in the pool—most of it underwater as I dolphin kick on my back until the flags at the far end of the pool pass over my head. Or a new job begins, with all the attendant paperwork and the meetings with people who think they know my job better than I do. They know something better, and I try to learn, as quickly as possible. Or a new romance, which is like falling, and is as easy as falling, the way falling is entirely effortless. What comes next?

The grind of workout #89, when the music on the waterproof MP3 player fails to inspire a quickened pace, and the bottom of the pool is endless. Or the month after the initial set of grades are due, and the fourth set of essays come across my desk. Not again. Not the same mess of misspellings and three page paragraphs. Or when the obligations of work and family eat into the blissful times, and bliss becomes quotidian. Imagine that, quotidian bliss.

In every aspect of my life, the transition from beginning to middle happens almost by accident. Like tripping over a carpet. I get used to the puckered places on the floor—or tug the whole thing up, and set it back down again, flat, until the gremlins shift it around again. And then I tug it up again. And again. One time will not do. One run of the vacuum. One load of laundry. Another set of tests to grade. Another and another and another.

But some things bear repetition, even improve. Like love. While it is hard to make the transition from falling to landing, it is better still to learn to fly, to find the joy. The old joke about, I just flew in from Los Angeles, and boy, are my arms tired. I would live for my arms to be so tired with the effort of flight. And it would be worth the effort, each fluctuation of my unseen wings, soaring in unison with my love.

It is the same with writing. I have used this blog as practice off and on for the past few years. It has been a way to scribble and not to worry about the duration of longer effort. Longer effort—let me call it what it is, a novel—can be daunting. What if, like falling and flying, one mistimes the creative leap and ends up hobbled or broken, with months of work sent to sea like Icarus? I only I can think about something longer as, well, 1000 word spans. 1000 words is nothing. 60 days at that pace, and… But let’s not get ahead.

Is writing something longer romantic? For me, yes. I have fallen out of love with several novels that I have begun. The ideas and characters have soured, or I have not loved them well enough to let them live beyond my narrow conception of them. For me, as much as writing is a commitment of ass to chair (scribble, scribble, Dr. Brennan), it mimics the action of reading—a generous engagement with a book. Seymour Glass’s best piece of writing advice ever— “Imagine the book you most want to read. Now go and write it”—has always resonated with me. And until now, other than some shorter pieces, no longer piece has fully met that criteria. Or, I was not up to the flight.

In the end, really, I don’t write because I have something to say, but still, because I want to discover something. Before I was a writer, I was a reader, and I still love to read. The same way that I love to travel, I love to discover ideas and characters in books. It is flight into unknown places. I love discovering what I do not know. Somewhere along the way the creative process seduces one into intention—I get caught in the web of intention—thinking about what I want to say instead of praising what I see. And letting my words find a way.

I take refuge in Michelangelo’s vision of the sculpture already extant in the stone—we aren’t creators so much as revealers—discoverers if you will. So too, with flight, while there may be a destination, there are also loops and rolls and fields long enough to land, and walk to an untended apple tree, pick a ripe crisp fruit, and eat. Discover this on the journey.

How many other aspects of my life follow this impulse—reveling in discovery more than intentional design? I think too many. Most people still live their lives primarily by design. There is security and satisfaction in the sense of agency that willfulness bestows. My students clamor to know what they need to do to earn an “A,” or a higher score on an exam. How unsatisfyingly do I answer, “Discover more.” That is no way forward, at least no specific way. It is an attitude and not a route.

And frankly, in romance, I have scuttled relationships because I have fought against others’ plans, not happy to simply follow the natural stages of things, and unhappy when a relationship settled into a routine. Of course, life is routine, a series of repeated rituals, a hundred thousand undulations of wings. But that routine, those rituals, can, should, must help one reveal what is hidden in the marble, or what might be found when gloriously in flight.

Perhaps, what I wanted, without knowing it, was someone who was willing to fly with me. And in my writing, something that had the chance of slipping the bonds of my intentions. A goal I could fly toward, that would transport me the same way that love transports and transforms me.

There is a little secret though. I do have at least one intention, and that is for this longer work to last, for it to remain engaging and vital, even when the effort strains my arms. And so, I take small flights. And share these flights, for now, with one who flies with me. I discover something new, one winged trip at a time.

Patterns

I don’t believe in fate—providence, if you will. If there is a plan, it does not proscribe outcomes. Rather we wander in and out of circumstances bumping into two sets of patterns—those we make out of our lives, and those that are beyond our immediate control. Life goes out of balance when we cannot get the two patterns to jibe—when we cannot reconcile ourselves to the patterns that exist. Out of balance we can neither accept what has happened in our lives or we cannot break those patterns and create new ones that are made from familiar pieces but reflect possibilities that we had not imagined. Out of balance we fight against the patterns that life provides, missing obvious signs (rising temperatures, repeated cruelties, even the tender messages of love) and careening against the walls of a maze that we cannot perceive and causing damage to ourselves and those around us.

The patterns in our lives start with family. I constantly share Philip Larkin’s poem, “This Be the Verse.” There is something reassuring in the thought that we are in a cycle of “fuck you up.” As opposed to Larkin, I think the ways we do it, as we do it, inescapably echo what has happened to us, perhaps a refracted and distorted echo, but if we listen closely the voices of the past are there. Beyond that we try, inexpertly and haphazardly, to shape something new—sometimes in the bounds of that was happened—marrying tin castings of our mothers or fathers—and sometimes creating almost new ones—bouncing from job to job, leaving or being fired, until we find something that makes sense; switching churches running away from one doctrine to another until we find answers to our questions, or questions for our answers, failing in aspects of our lives until we discover paths that lead to understanding and accomplishment.

If we pay attention there are patterns to the world—some are startlingly easy to discern: evolution, geology, philosophy, math, literature. We go to school to learn to recognize those patterns, or at least learn the methods behind those patterns. Maybe—there’s no guarantee—we learn to accept that life does not always follow the neat regular order of all that we learn—like a geometry proof—but proceeds in fits and starts—like punctuated equilibrium. Or that it bears an uncanny resemblance to the cagey repetitions of a Mandelbrot set—a kind of beautiful and frustratingly decoded paisley.

I am writing this, because I can see—but only when I’m not looking straight at it—a pattern. The school where I will teach in the fall is near the junctions of routes 17 and 29—roads that ran through my earlier life. The mountains nearby are mountains on which I hiked when I was twelve. I am now split, three hours in either direction—when the traffic is good—from both ends of my family. These are entirely random coincidences—of that I am sure. However, coincidence when it travels in large numbers begins to wear the shape of a pattern. Perhaps it is a pattern of my own making—I look for affirmation and discover it where I will.

And yet, these days, I find other coincidences accruing—but not coincidences, more like reflections and refractions.

How many times in my life have I wondered how someone significant has entered my orbit—or rather, how has the rogue moon of my existence been captured by another’s gravity? I recognized early on the awful fact that I was chasing those tin castings from my family. Inevitable, and not always destined for failure, yet, somehow, not strangely, I ended up at 58 single.

When I looked through the kaleidoscope of my past relationships, I recognized the shifting bits of glass and plastic that first came present in my childhood. And with each turning, I noticed newer, more original bits. I could see how I was adding to the portrait, or finding, fortunately, new colors and shapes. This bit—a runner who lead me onto the road and into extended jaunts over hills. That bit—a wild heretical sense of magic and religion that helped my questioning soul find new answers. Over there, now sliding out of the periphery—an abiding sense of motherhood that helped me see fatherhood in a clearer light. Here—a love of play and pretending that rekindled my dramatic heart. In the corner—a fervent commitment to words and learning that at least matched my own. Sliding past in a glint of light—a traveler’s heart that would call me away from the familiar and to new destinations.

All these marked shifts away, additions to, and surprises in my vision of who I would walk with down city streets and along autumn trails. Singularly, each one added a variation to a familiar pattern, but that pattern remained dominant. All together they formed a secret wish—not just for someone else, but for the person I wanted to be.

Do we get to pick that person? Are we trapped under years of habit and gentle conditioning? They have carried me this far. What to do with the secret and not so secret longings—dreams set aside for expedience and practicality, or for some ingrained fear or limit? What if I began to write a new story—still with some familiar elements, but now with a center I have let waste in a box kept in a closet, underneath last year’s shoes, out of sight, but never, naggingly, out of mind?

I don’t believe in fate, but what if, instead of providence, I relied on my will to call forth a story, to create a possibility I had turned from year after year? What would happen? Would the kaleidoscope turn to reveal someone, or—by dint of will and willingness to shake my life into new form—would someone appear, almost without request, almost by chance? I don’t believe in fate, but I can see patterns, and can follow stars that have not lifted above the horizon before now.

Onward!

Two Sides: Ambivalence Part 2

When we are young, we change.  The hurtling forward into growth exhilarates us. We learn at full gallop, disastrously adding new ideas before old ones have taken shape. We are gluttons, and the table is richly laid out and endless. Our Apollonian and Dionysian sides eat together—the only rule is More, and more we do have. We learn and learn, good gods I hope we do, like gods.

rr-apollo-quiz-apollo-lyre_23f7551cSome people, most people, grow up, and cast their lot on one side or the other. Apollonian selves dream into an idea of logic and order—think a sonnet by Shakespeare, glorious in its arrangement of rhythm, rhyme, and idea. This is Apollo brought to earth, walking firmly on the ground. Dionysian selves trumpet feelings and instinct: Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” is as much a dictum as can be borne.

180px-Dionisio3

Rule three thousand one hundred and sixty-two: if you are one, do not marry the other. And do not ask about the other five million rules.

And recognize that just because one is Dionysian, do not think there is a lack of rules about how to go wild. A little Apollonian memory slips in.  You need to party like this, or you aren’t really partying, dude.  On the flip side there may be a wild inconsistency built into that Apollonian logic—call it hypocrisy if you feel like it but know that wildness finds a way.

A few people never settle into one side or the other.  The two halves bristle within like ions in a storm cloud. Ambi-valent: charged in two directions, fire in both hands.  We don’t grow up, but out, finding hidden paths through the forest, wanting one last opinion, and reassessing as we charge into conflict. Yelling at our superiors and demanding a reckoning.  Being schooled by our students and admitting our blindness. and always, always learning.

I bemoan my ambivalence; I cherish my ambivalence. It’s a dirty little secret about my life. I hate being fenced in, and I love the elegant symmetry of a well written novel. You point out chaos, and I will chart the forcelines that create paisley swirls. I want to love someone and build a life with them and I want them to dance right out of the picture on their own. I want to lead the way, and I am happy to chase comets.

Oh, it’s the worst. And the best. Or the other way around. And the other way around.

Some folks tell me that I’m too strict, or not enough of an adult, or that I have too many rules, or that I don’t follow their rules. Dude, this is how we party. How am I a teacher? How could I be anything else? How can I not shake up my life and take my daughter along for the ride: reassuring her, giving her the foundation she needs, and teaching her that when the earth shakes, the ground still loves her. And that everywhere I am, I will love her.

coin_flipping_by_uroskrunic-d36x79rMy youngest brother has told me many times that I am too serious. And of all the boys, I am. And not. My wildness is serious, and my seriousness is wild. Flip a coin, and watch the light glint off side after side after side as it tumbles through the air. Heads or tails, the glinting wins.