Onward, Sans Air

It’s raining, and everyone is moving away. A few years ago, this type of thing filled me with an immeasurable sadness, a choking feeling. My throat closed around it. It stopped me from breathing. The thought of my community disintegrating beneath my fingers tasted like ash and lack of air.

Today, the house into which I moved when I first came to the Miami area is legally evaporating, lease over and contract up. I will spend the day helping a friend who is like a brother finish packing an apartment I moved out of months ago, and I’ve already hugged another goodbye– Tuesday’s seen him off to another state.

And now it feels light. This is a wheel turning onward, and I have no desire to stop it, still it, make it turn back.

What changed? I did. I learned to breathe this wind. There is air here after all. It’s raining, and I’m not alone.

About Doubt

See, here’s the problem. I started out with a goal. I mean, I also wanted to make the stories stop nagging me. That, too. I have to empty them out like a bucket that catches the leak, anyway. If I don’t, they overflow. Flooded brains are less fun than you might think.

But the problem, the real problem, is that I wanted to be a writer. I wanted… the words to catch somewhere, to catch something else on fire. A pure vanity. I wanted to be a writer, and maybe wanting something like that is where I went wrong.

But then, maybe that’s the only way to do it. Maybe you have to have something like that in mind in order to even set your feet to the path. So that’s what I’ve done: set my feet to the path, wanting to be a writer.

And now, of course, I hesitate. After I’ve gotten a few little publications, after I’ve finished a few stories and I’m almost 20,000 words deep into two unfinished novels, now, now, I sit down and ask myself what the hell I’m doing. What the hell am I doing?

It’s overwhelming, the little voices telling me I’ll never be as good as, I’ll never even make a side-living off of, I’ll never be read, never be discussed, never be disliked and torn down. It isn’t about the idea of fame or fortune, but spreading words around like a flu virus. It’s about craft and contagion. I want to make those words contagious. I want to participate in the conversation. I want to read a thing, and write a thing, and say “Hey, I disagree. I love your words, but I disagree,” with my work, and then have others to respond even to that.

Craft and contagion. And when I frame it in those terms, it all becomes maybe doable again. I just have to empty the bucket, and play with the muck that results. I just have to empty the bucket, and see where it gets me.

Futile Resistance: Your Anti-Valentine

In 1969, the Feast of St. Valentine was removed from the General Roman Catholic calendar, because nothing was really known of this St. Valentine, other than his general burial location: along the ancient Roman road leading from the seat of the empire to the Adriatic Sea. And there were lots of these martyred guys named Valentine. Apparently, it was a popular name. Or sayeth Wikipedia, our treasured source for all cursory knowledge. But it’s at least a place to begin. I do know that Valentine’s Day was a celebration of romantic love since Chaucer’s day, and that the Victorians made little paper love trinkets to exchange of lace and pretty print cutouts long before we coated it all in chocolate.

Better to know that than think it an invention of Hallmark and the chocolate companies, our modern wallet-vultures swooping in proclaiming “Diamonds! Dinner! Obligation!” Because that’s what it’s become, hasn’t it? A bunch of outward proclamations, proof of affection through expense. Maybe that’s the way love always was: “Buy me bigger things. Prove it.”

I like love better than that (all the roses seem ostentatious, bred to last long, and smell not so sweet). I like to love in odder ways. I like to love everything at once. I’m better at that than pushing it all at one figure, expected to partake in a game of demands.

So I’ll offer you this, a Valentine, an Anti-Valentine, since this is not a celebration of romantic love, but something broader: I love you. Planet, people, I love you, you gods-damned broken mess. I love you fiercely. I love you painfully and openly. I love you like a river loves the rock of its bed, in a cutting way. I love you like the birds love the air, born to strain against it in order move through it. I love you like these things because they are unthinking things, but dependent things. People, planet, I love you, you’re messed up awful wonderful. Just like me.

Whole world, it’s Valentine’s Day. It’s a silly celebration. So let’s go celebrate. Let’s go do something small and ill-advised and lovely.

A Voice Across the Room

I am sitting in the library. It’s supposed to be quiet. There are the bangs and buzzes of the construction, saws and hammers and glasses panes being carried by heavy-booted feet. These noises aren’t obtrusive… at least to me. But remember, I’m a weird one, and the sounds of trains roaring by in the night is a lullaby. Crowds yammering, shoutings, laughing, these don’t bother me either. I can’t understand anything they’re saying, picking out only a word here or there, sending me off on tracks after poems containing words that tumble through packed bars over the din of guitar strings and beer-fueled fights.

But no. There is one voice here in this library. One man talking loudly on his cell phone. “Yeah, he was doin’, and I ain’t gonna lie to you, he can go now, and yeah that’s what I’m sayin’, but uh… really? Them two back to back a couple years now… Cody’s goin’ nowhere,” and he chuckles.

The clock ticks.

“Wow.”

Ten minutes pass.

“Yeah, and she’s holdin’ on for a while, now.”

Twenty minutes pass.

“That’s what I’m sayin’.”

Half an hour. There is no signal from his end of the conversation that it’s going to end soon. I can only focus on his voice, my writing paused, my reading crossing wires with the sound of a spoken language I understand.

“Brian, he still doin’ his thing.”

I wish he was speaking Spanish. Or German. Or Korean. These languages I don’t comprehend fade into the din of un-meaning, get lost in the background of hammer strikes and whirring saw blades. But he’s speaking English, and that is one of two languages I speak. Hearing it calls my active attention. It’s a reflex. I can’t deny it. It’s as clear as the half-understood Kreyole on the bus, pulling on the strings of my rusted French.

So I sit and watch the clock tick by, tapping fingers, reading the same lines over and over again, unable to flow down to the next paragraph for the—

“I don’t know, whatta you talkin’ ’bout? Ride that horse boy, ride that thing, mmhm.”

—that fills the air.

So what do I do? I listen. For instance the “mmhm” is one syllable, sliding from one sound into the other.

“That’s all it takes, that’s all it takes, right there. You know what I’m sayin’? You know what I mean, come on.”

I bend my ears. How is he saying it? Rich baritone, the dialect, noting the up tones and where they fall. I can’t see him. He’s obscured by the concrete library pillar. I can see his back pack: black with neon orange trim.

“Uh-huh, see I din’ know that. I din’ know it. He did good. Okay,” and he chuckles again. “All seventy, eighty years old.”

And I transcribe fragments, trying to catch an identity, a cadence, a richness of sound just in text.

“Oh, Lowd.” It doesn’t sound like “Lawd” or “Lord.” There is a specificity to it.

This is when I begin to question my own comfort, listening to his words, typing them out, transcribing them as I hear them. He’s saying them in a public place, and I can’t hear the person on the other end. They don’t really give anything away, who he is, who these people are, these bits and snippets I’ve recorded. I may have even misheard the names. But now I feel like a voyeur, like maybe I should move, give him a little space to talk.

But where can I go on this floor away from the sound of his conversation? Other patrons are taking up the spots near outlets, the computers open, fingers clattering over their keyboards. I stick it out, listening to the strange music of his voice. I stick it out, snatching phrases from the air. And I wonder how many times my conversations in public have given others pause, half-listening.