Strong enough to hold a ship, able to slip through fingers; Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes

There’s this Langston Hughes poem, “Brand New Clothes,” that we recited at Holy Savior Academy. I was in preschool, it was my first school and it was filled with girls and boys who looked like me. We were in an auditorium for a recital or performance of some sort. In unison, we recited the name of the poem and author, dragging out the vowels in each word of “by Langston Hughes” in that sing-songy voice particular to young children on stage. Our teacher, or the older children – I can’t really remember, my memory’s never been that good – recited the lines and we repeated them.

My mama told me

You better get off your knees with those

brand new clothes on

Last year at this time, I was having the best day and drove to downtown Lawrence to listen to some prose and poetry and eat cake. On that day, it only just crossed my mind how serendipitous it was that Langston Hughes’s birthday ushers us into February. The Singer of America, The Speaker of Rivers. Who else could do it so well?

In the children’s section of a used bookstore at the border of Berkeley and Oakland I saw a book of Langston Hughes’s poetry and I picked it up and scanned each page. I tried to find the words I know from back then, but I didn’t find them. I never do. It always makes me doubt my memory, what’s real and what really happened. Have I known rivers? Rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins? Has my soul grown deep like the rivers?

We said the next part of the poem in unison:

But mama, I’m already down

May I stay down?

She said no. And she had her way.

That’s why I’m so clean today.

The answer is yes, I have. The answer is of course. The answer is to emphasize the “too” in “I, Too, Sing America.” The answer is that this month and this history belong to all of us in the same way that America does. The answer is that I hope the girls and boys who read that book of Langston Hughes poetry will get something lodged into that space of memory between interpretation and understanding and sing of rivers, or America, too.

Aren’t birthdays the best?

Langston Hughes

the fate of objects

Nothing is more improbable or subject to chance than the fate of objects

Billie Dyer and Other Stories – William Maxwell

 

Downton Abbey does not sound like a show I would like. I am not a fan of period dramas; I’ve had enough of icy brunettes with mean streaks. I just finished reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day” and it turns out, I am also not a fan of Great Britain in the early 20th century. Or, to be honest, I am just not interested in it.

But there’s a particular escapism in Downton Abbey that I enjoy. I enjoy escaping into a life in which the stakes seem low, but are actually impossibly high. I enjoy seeing the drama of gigantic problems and quiet solutions played out in soft, measured tones. I enjoy the calculations and the hard-hearted stoicism with which they face the unaccounted for incidents of life.

How do you ever know?

Preparation is just pretend. Nothing is more improbable than anything at all.

Billie Dyer kept a notebook. Billie Dyer, the African-American doctor from Kansas City by way of Lincoln, Illinois, kept a notebook that ended up in the hands of a curious Texan.

William Maxwell wrote a story. William Maxwell actually wrote a lot of stories. I read them and thought about aphorisms and why we write and who we hope will read.

I think we hope we’ll read it again someday. That we’ll pick it up and it will have a purpose outside of what it was. I think we hope for eternal life by way of notebooks and notes and write like a motherfucker aphorisms and quotes. I think we hope.

Nothing is more improbable or subject to chance than the whims of a nineteen-year-old carried out by a twenty-something-year old.

Will the object be gone tomorrow? Or venerated later today? I am almost always sure that there is a better course of action than the one I am on, or I’m almost always sure that I’m doing the right thing for me.

Who knows? Who could’ve guessed a Victorian mansion in the English countryside would experience it’s second wind by way of an ITV/Masterpiece Theater drama featuring English ladies in compromising positions with foreign dignitaries, blackmail, revolution, war, Dame Maggie Smith and Shirley Maclaine?

But then again, when I write it like that…

All I Need (is the air that I breathe)

I like the air here.

It’s still, doesn’t impose in the morning with a fierce coldness or envelope with a sweat inducing heat at midday. It simply exists. At night, I leave my window open and it provides such a negligible temperature change in my room that I forget to shut it for days, only remembering when the fog rolls in on a random Tuesday morning and I wake up with a cold nose and cold toes. I’m writing about it in terms of what it is not because I still can’t believe what it is. I’ve only just gotten used to not feeling cold in 70 degree weather at the peak of summer.

When I first moved, I looked into apartments on the west side of the city. The west side was, allegedly, hip. It was growing, opening up to a younger, cooler population and the houses were getting nicer, or if they were shit, they were gritty, real—and really fucking cool.

But I need outdoor spaces more than I need cool and I kept finding myself on environmental websites that gave me facts on the port’s pollution and the shockingly high cases of asthma in the kids out there and so, because I had the option, I headed for the hills, or as close as I could get.

Yesterday, my entire county was covered with that red outline reserved for severe situations on The Weather Channel. And so was the county above me, the one where Richmond and the Chevron refinery are located. And their red was bolder. And their warnings only issued after the fact. These warnings were instructions, they said things like: “Don’t breathe the air,” and “keep your fireplaces closed.” And, to me, it sounded like a strange game of dissociation because what the fuck could one have to do with the other? And then I remembered that I live in a city with a port. And then I tracked that dirty air from my computer at my desk beside my open window. And then I shut my window.

What makes people want to protect and change their environment?

This was a question I wrote down on my first weekend in the city—the other one, the city by the bay. I was at a lecture on “Our Better Nature,” which is a concept as well as the title of a book written by an environmental history professor at SFSU. I was at the Golden Gate Library, a tiny, beautiful library so close to the marina and it’s perfectly blue water, that after the talk was done I took a walk down the hill to get a better view of it. It was so beautiful, so irresistible that I could have watched it for hours. That’s one of my favorite things about nature, how it can convince you that you’re not close enough to it, how it can make you forget that it’s all around you.

Environmental history is how a group rearranges nature in order to live in it. It’s the roads and buildings we’ve built as well as the trees and gardens we’ve curated in the middle of it. At its simplest, we all play a part in environmental change because we are constant rearrangers of nature. We rearrange nature by deciding the things we can’t live without: fresh fruit, grain, herbs, beef, milk, eggs, gasoline, automobiles or mass-produced clothes from Taiwan. Someone has to find the space to grow those things, care for those things, build and sustain them and then ship them. They all have their effects and because nature is not better in one form or another (for instance, a dry region is not better than a humid one is not better than a mild and temperate one, etc…), our better nature can only refer to what we the people are demanding and what we’re deciding we can’t live without.

And I can’t tell you what you can and cannot live without—and who the fuck am I to try to do that?—but, I choose air.

“Our Better Nature” is a book written by Phillip J. Dreyfus, Associate Professor of History at San Francisco State University. My personal notes taken at his June 23rd lecture at the Golden Gate Branch San Francisco Public Library informed certain segments of this post (betcha can’t guess which ones!)

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38.8403° N, 97.6111° W, or Salina

Everything is the same.

The girls’ locker room with the automatic light that only comes on seconds after waving your arm in front of it.

My name, written in shitty cursive, calling out to the Class of 2008 from the underside of a bright blue support beam. Other names etched into decade old dust. Tara from the Class of 2002. Kendra from the Class of 2007. We were all that young once. I want to write a thank you note to the janitors that never visit here. I want to write it in the dust and see how long it lasts.

Posters defining courage and integrity and excellence still decorate the hallway. Touchdown Jesus still has his arms raised and our senior pictures still hang in thick plastic sheets across the hall from him and the storage space and development office.

Everything is the same.

It’s strange–strange enough to force us into classrooms to try to find our names in books older than we are. It’s strange enough to make us lose track of time as we scan their histories, dating from 1988 to 2011. It’s strange enough to make it a little more believable when we find our siblings, but never ourselves. But we look and we look and we look.

We look through stacks of Physics books, Grammar and Composition books. We don’t bother checking the Bibles but we check the weight room and then we realize that it’s all so perfectly familiar because it is the place. The place where, if not all, at least most of it happened. I want to sing “Oh, you are the roots that sleep beneath my feet” to the hallways and the classrooms and to that one teacher who kept her closet light on and her room covered in butterflies.

I want to say thank you, but mostly I want to say goodbye.

“There was this book I read and loved, the story of a ship

That sailed around the world and found that nothing else exists

Beyond his own two sails”

And mostly, I want to let go and move on and find a way to make a life that dares me to act, then asks me for my truth.

And what did you learn today, it will ask. And I will tell it all.

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Don’t Fear the Reaper

The souvenir cowbells in my trashcan rattle every time I hopscotch across my floor to get to my bed or my closet or my bathroom. They are marketing tools from an event I volunteered at in April. I grabbed two because my friend didn’t want hers – “They’re just going to end up being something else I have to throw away,” she said. I knew she was right, but I pretended like I had space.

Now, my desk is covered in lesson plans and notes crisscrossing from 2008 to 2012. I’ve packed them in boxes labeled with KEEP because they’re worth something, whereas the cowbells are worth nothing. I can’t keep the cowbells. There’s no space or point to them. When has anyone ever needed less cowbell? When did I rewrite that script?

The soles of my shoes are covered in berries that the overzealous sun has forced to ripen before their time. I want to remind them that it’s still May, that for everything there is a season –to ripen, to rot, to start all over. But, even nature has rewritten her script, so I shrug and learn to trust the process.

Seasons don’t fear the reaper

Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain

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and again, and again, and again (I’m always falling in love)

The other day I was giddy on nitrous oxide and genuinely thought my teeth were loose because of course I did.

“Do you remember the last tooth you lost?” I asked my hygienist. It sounded a little more urgent than I wanted it to, so I continued.

“I remember it–I remember thinking ‘I guess I’m an adult now.’”

With that we speculated about where I’d be years from now and I gave her Plan A, Plan B and Plan C.

It’s funny to think about the things that are supposed to initiate us into the adult world.

I’m almost 100% sure that years from now, under the influence of auld lang syne or a particularly beautiful day, I’ll turn to whomever’s close and urgently ask: “Do you remember…?” and try to trace the time from there to here.

from my dentist

 

“and mostly, I am grateful that I take this world so seriously”

It’s time to tuck a few notes into the Internet time capsule.

The abstract ones and the notes scribbled on legal paper with phrases like “we are all the sum of our contradictions” and “it’s hard to pull off anything, take as long as you need.” Cheesy book quotes, like: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Or essays that start with, “It’s a long story…”

Because it is a long story, so save the Playbills and the concert tickets and remember the funny phrases and the pizza and the good weather and the love (and shame) and love. Always, always, always love. And balloons.

21, thanks for the drinks.

Thanks for the goodbyes and hellos.

Thanks for feeling like a million Alanis Morissette songs.

Thanks for Big Bear and the beach.

Thanks for graduation and the discovery of deer.

Thanks for The OC game and Joan Didion.

Thanks for good lighting and simple songs.

Thanks for Pet Sounds and Born to Run.

Thanks for the uke and Dream a Little Dream.

Thanks for cute faced kittens and dogs with a sense of humor.

Thanks for belly laughs.

Thanks for family and long days in pajamas.

Thanks for “Shall we dance?”

Thanks for Beyonce.

And thanks for Harry Potter. Because that had to happen.

22, I want even more karaoke.

And finger picking ukulele songs

More give

More patience

More poetry

More accents

More songs of myself and long walks and Xs and Os.

And maybe a little Mahler spilling through those songs.

22, there’s something about you that I really like already.

I wanted to thank the mockingbird for the vigor of his song.

Everyday he sang from the rim of the field,

While I picked blueberries or just idled in the sun.

Every day he came fluttering by to show me,

and why not, the white blossoms of his wings.

 

So one day I went there with a machine,

And played some songs of Mahler.

The mocking bird stopped singing,

he came close and seemed to listen.

 

Now when I go down to the field,

a little Mahler spills through the sputters of his song.

How happy I am, lounging in the light,

listening as the music floats by!

 

And I give thanks also for my mind,

that thought of giving the gift.

And mostly I’m grateful that I take this world so seriously.

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Will I Make it Home Tomorrow?

In almost every writing course I’ve taken I’ve been reminded of the importance of beginning in media res—in the middle of things. Explication is superfluous; no one really needs to know what happened before the shoe dropped, before the letter arrived to the cupboard under the stairs, before she decided to cut his hair. The way I have been taught to regard time is that because it is linear, some parts are more important—or, at least, more interesting—than others.

Not everyone is taught that, but most people believe it—that life only really begins after some point, a specific age or event. Life can change in grand, sweeping ways that can knock you off your feet and point you in new directions but it’s not always tidal waves. Every day you make a decision to live your life a certain way and that’s you setting your course. We’re powerful in that way.

“We can never know what to want,

Because living only one life, we can neither

Compare it with our previous lives

Nor perfect it in our lives to come”

-Milan Kundera

The way I read that, is that the true unbearable lightness of being is deciding what to do with all your potential energy. The possibilities in every day of living, a new start every single day.

In “Goodbye to All That” Joan Didion writes: “It is easy to see the beginnings of things and harder to see the ends.” But I think both are impossible to grasp. I think we all exist in the gray area between the black and white beginnings and endings, never quite sure when the moment started but always in it. Telling our own stories just by moving along, in media res.

And maybe time isn’t linear; maybe it’s circular. Everything in our personal experience could support that idea: have you, on personal level, ever witnessed time ending? Yes, experiences end but how can you ever be sure that something is really over? Maybe nothing ends, maybe things just move to the periphery of our vision where we can never quite catch sight of it. I could believe that. I could believe that entire worlds are caught in motion just around the corner.

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oh, the weather outside is weather

day34 001

The only reaction to finishing a two-hour final writing exam over a segment of American literature ranging from Tuscaroran oral narratives to impassioned fire-and-brimstone sermons to the Gettysburg Address is to raise your arms in the air and mime yelling “Woo hoo!”

OR, doing that is the flagrant foul of test taking. Win some/lose some. More specifically, lose 2% of your final grade. Like Pee Wee said: “I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.”

Two years ago, I took a survey class on Latin American society. The main text was titled “Born in Blood and Fire” and every Tuesday and Thursday I would sit and consume over an hour’s worth of media on the past and present atrocities in South and Central America, Spain, Portugal and the Caribbean. It didn’t always make me happy, but it made me more informed. Before this class, I had no idea a banana republic was more than a department store in mid-sized US cities. That’s important information! It also piqued my interest in nonfiction literature and, like Charles Darwin, it made me crave fictional media in a different way.

Scanning in his mind so many times and places,

he’d had enough of dying species,

the triumphs of the strong over the weak,

the endless struggles to survive,

all doomed sooner or later.

He’d earned the right to happy endings,

at least in fiction

with its diminutions.

Now, my consumption of media in all its forms is a little out of control—at least, that’s what I learned after filling out a 24-hour time sheet in my media and psychology class. I also learned of the third-person effect—the belief that media can and does affect the way other people think, but doesn’t affect you—and I learned that words and theories are only as good as the counter ideas and actions. That if you think Americans consume too much and give too little, you should consume less and give more. If you think your generation is narcissistic and lazy, then spend more time appreciating the world around you and less time looking at the worlds you create through social media.

Last week, Louis C.K. was on Fresh Air promoting his five dollar comedy show, “Louis C.K.: Live at the Beacon Theater”. Here’s what he had to say about actions and words:

I see soldiers fly all the time, because that’s how they get to the war. You think they get to go in a cool green plane with a red light – go, go, go. No, they just go to Delta, and they just wait in line to go to a war. And they always fly coach…every time that I see a soldier on a plane, I always think: You know what? I should give him my seat. It would be the right thing to do. It would be easy to do, and it would mean a lot to him…Because I’m in first class – why? For being a professional asshole. This guy is giving his life for the country… He’s told by everybody in his life system that that’s a great thing to do, and he’s doing it. And it’s scary, but he’s doing it, and he’s sitting in this shitty seat, and I should trade with him.

I never have, let me make that clear. I’ve never done it once. I’ve had so many opportunities. I never even really seriously came close.

And here’s the worst part: I still just enjoy the fantasy for myself to enjoy. I was actually proud of myself for having thought of it. I was proud. Oh, I am such a sweet man. That is so nice of me to think of doing that and then totally never do it.

It’s hilarious and he’s a hilarious, but it’s also a good reminder to just do it–give up your seat, stay offline more often–whatever, just do it. Because the world is already bad and mean and selfish, we all know that, but sometimes we can make it a little less so.