Two Rocks Sitting

two rocks bThere had been times to do nothing at all. Nothing to make. Nothing to mend. Nothing to buy, even if it might have been needed. There really had been no need to polish anything at all. The brass pin that I had worn on my lapel, I could not remember even when I had stuck it in on the left side of my jacket, let alone gotten it. The peeling leather of my watch strap, same kind of thing. What it had been to be reminded of them now, like the weathered wooden pickets to a country fence grown gray and showing their grain splitting over time, is that these alone are the bring-about of death. When looking at an old canvas field coat, or a pair of well-worn boots, that is exactly in step with one’s own working, one’s own walking.

Some things, like gardens, renew themselves each year. And, if they are tended well, each year they grow a little better—only because the gardener has learned perhaps one small thing last season. But the gardener is older. Other things, inanimate, forever lifeless, they, too, have their own sullen beauty—stuck the way they are, almost the perfect emblems of eternity. If any change should ever come to rocks lying about the forest, such would only be through something cataclysmic, or something human and mad the way smashing them up to rocky small bits with a hammer would be mad.

The simple fact is that things wear out—valves to kitchen faucets eventually leak; tomato stakes rot at the ends; bicycle tires will get flats. That is how it goes with tree stumps chucked over the stone wall, with a sweet pile of sunflower seeds sifted through by the careful paws of bears, and with people, too, falling asleep to the back-and-forth sounds of katydids chirping again at night when the middle of summer has passed, the way I had in childhood.

One, Two Buckled, My Shoe

two white metal chairs

He had had one hundred thoughts in one hundred and one days. That meant that there were one hundred thoughts less, or properly speaking ‘fewer’ to have. Those days and those thoughts were gone. With regard to such counting, whether forwards or backwards, brave and young Stephen Dedalus claimed that he was lucky to stumble upon a good thought once in a fortnight, or every two weeks. Likewise, in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, there’s no six piece thin affair but a gigantic orchestral hullabaloo about every fortnight, too. Again, then, with regard to the former, that doesn’t seem to be a whole lot, in truth, especially in the age of adolescence, that newfangled notion that is time’s comfortable muskeg people get stuck in between childhood and being grown up today—ever since the average human lifespan became rather ridiculously long, attenuated to the slow decline of sloping downward into a near horizontal buzz along the manmade asymptote of near nothingness for decades of palliative discomfort and some peculiar kind of peering out somewhere. As to the latter, having a festive lawn party under a tent with a couple hundred uninvited guest who come in from nowhere, that seems to be obscene in its frequency, as was the intent of Fitzgerald to display and Mr. Gatsby to purposefully have, to drag in the diamond dregs so as to perchance collect his lost pearl Daisy, if not purloin her. As for the ticket-taker whose story begins this lacklustre note, he had taken to mind once as a child that numbers themselves worked like this: you start with 1; you double that and get 2; and after that (3) you’ve got many. And, while he also, with his little handheld penlight ushered others into the movie theater velvet quietly to their seats when they arrived a bit late for the show, and was very helpful to them, he kept, like a bushy-haired, gray-tailed autumnal squirrel losing more than half its acorns due to luck, fortuity, and nature’s misfortune, his remaining day’s comments mostly to himself.

Playing Tag, Or: Duking It Out On The Playground

good men mining

Many schools tried to improve standardized test scores by cutting recess time several years ago, but elementary school principals realized that play time had actually helped test performance . . .

http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2015/0926/Ban-on-Tag-Are-school-children-getting-the-right-playtime

The best thing to be and the worst thing to be is It. When you’re It you get to run around and chase everybody else who isn’t. You want to make them what you are. The moment you are successful, you aren’t It anymore. Somebody else is. Then the moment that happens somebody else begins chasing you. And you are chased as if you never were It yourself. There is no history. This is pretty much true unless the same kid gets getting tagged over and over. Given the randomness of Tag, and the built-in privilege of being that paradoxically wanted and unwanted thing, I’d never seen it happen. Who’d be so lucky? Who’d be so damned? Who’d get all that privilege to be the scourge of the playground again and again? But only a sad and pathetic ethos could ever link the viability of Tag to achieving higher test scores. If there is a directly proportional relationship to time to play Tag during recess, keep it. If not, delete it from the curriculum.

To further this inanity, Tag is also referred to as “free-range” game. Besides the inherent reference there to wandering chickens and their straw-nested eggs hatched and laid in some equivalent of rustic comfort (and perhaps herds of buffalo in Montana), it brings up the unspoken “other”: games that are not free-range. These are games that are carefully controlled, and which take place in small cubby-like spaces, or cubicles, the little blank available corners of civilization’s meager enough existence. After years during which one has learned to sit in row after row, room after room, and being tested over a variety of abilities to be able to endure sitting in rows and rows, room after room, year after year, one becomes, at last, well-conditioned to sit in a chair with blinders on both sides of it on a floor in a building (any building anywhere) and do some kind of business with a computer and computer programs on computer screens among strangers doing more or less the same thing and feel really nothing particular toward or against any of them, as they neither feel anything particularly particular toward or against you, and make a living—even if, you might otherwise, under altogether different circumstances, have felt a sort of murderous rage or even dislike toward some of your now colleagues; or, on the other hand, had an elective affinity such that you wanted to hold and embrace and love some of them.

The very fact that childhood games such as Tag were ever played, games which have inherently no point at all except the most potent and glorious one, to have fun outside together, was an unthought of blessing at school once upon a time. That physical contact, the obligatory hashing out of “Yes, you were” or “No, I wasn’t” touched or “hit”—kids running around helter-skelter will of course sometimes get pushed, and sometimes there might even be a trace of menace in it, but mostly not—that these have, like so many things been raised to the level of question and censure, presents a queer little paradigm for kids to be learning to lead a productive life and to become contributing members of society from the moment they are vying for their parents’ attention onwards. Having, however, rid all such chaos and disorder and random fervor from the playgrounds of yesteryear certainly presented the world we now live in an effectively solid strategy paved with asphalt intentions to be tread upon, I am rather certain, by our having installed in the stead of such idle games as Tag obedient troops of drones, drone-like human beings, and automatons among whom constant good conscience and measurably historical upward progress will ineluctably be achieved in a straight and steadfast line until old age or technical obsolescence hits them and they expire.

Leaves, Games & Other Treasure

fall leaves

As a kid, she had played a board game called Careers. It was a fun game to play. Arrows were spun, dice were tossed, paths were taken. Players became things. They became lawyers, or doctors, or engineers. They became businessmen. It was an old-fashioned game. And it was great fun to go down the different colored pathways and to turn up cards or hit spaces on the board that set you back. The whole thing was meaningless, and even the name of the game itself had no meaning at all. She grew up with a sense none of the things she had played when she was little had ever mattered at all. It was just fun. That’s all.

When she was older and leaving college all the kids leaving school were shouting at each other as they were leaving the bright grassy green campus for good, “Get a job!” That was funny. For who’d want to learn for four years and then just forget all that and go to get a job? She had heard her classmates joking that way and it was pretty funny for sure. Even the President of the United States of America, he said that people believed around the country today that if you worked hard you should get ahead. And he believed that this was a common creed across the land. What Alice had by this time discovered is that her particular world was ever slow and ever slowing. In this way when a leaf fell, she saw it. In this way when a bus pulled out, she had smelled the diesel fumes. In this way, when the equinox came in September, she felt the chilling cool inside her body’s bones. In this way, when she opened her mind she could hear own thinking. And this had happened more and more in life since her joyful days when she had had fun playing games on the floor that didn’t matter.

For so many others it had appeared to her, too, that from top to bottom, what she was experiencing as her own life might not be exactly happening to them. Instead, it was as if everything in their lives had been already mapped out, as if they had been appearing as performers in a theatrical performance of a scene of themselves. It was a game that everybody knew. A game where the dice were loaded. The war was over. The good guys lost. And that wasn’t a very fun game for anybody to play. Even for the rich winners it wasn’t very fun. That was no more fun than reaching blindly into a treasure chest and every time you put in your hand you pulled out pearls and gold. No, she knew that the whole point of a real treasure chest is that you don’t pull out pearls and gold every time you reach in your hand. That’s just the same thing every time. A known certainty that after a while isn’t very fun to do anymore. No, it was the doubt, and uncertainty, and the misgivings, too, which of course had to come along with uncomfortable doubt and uncertainty from time to time, that had made her life so far very fun and very playful.

Sweet Longing From Afar

pilings 2

Forgive me that I am sweet and lonely by myself. And all your treasures forsaken. The boots I got were perfect. And their silver buckles shine brightly. I am filled with many thanks. For now I am living in the meadow. My distractions here are few. And alone I am become a burbling brook almost. Once an uncle showed me an ice cold spring into which a bandit was shot and died. “Right there,” said Uncle John pointing with the handle of his pipe smoking, at the head of it where the clear spring water came up out of the ground. And as a small boy I thought with some disgust and wonder, since this water was the source of all our drinking, had I drunk this bandit’s blood? When tempted by my uncle (and my own boyish desires), I had stuck my hand into the clear spring water, which looked so pure I saw the sandy bottom seven or eight feet down as though it were only inches, and just as fast pulled my burning fingers and palm out in terrible pain. It was that icy, that cold. I know now better that I drank the blood of that bandit, and of the Christ, and of the Buddha, and of another never-to-be-named one, too, along with the drinking water. We eat their dust. We breathe and drink and eat them all. That is just the way it is here on Earth, where everything in time is so commingled, not completely unlike a misty cloud of playfully dancing gnats which seem to be such a bother to us but really are not so terrible. If one day you are passing by this sunny valley on your journey, and can see from afar my smoke curling away from the rooftop of my little cabin, please remember that you are welcome to sleep and rest yourself warmly here overnight.

Bluestone & Lichen Field

bluestone & lichen

The things he had loved were the things he had seen. And the things he had seen were so often the ordinary. He had once seen a shooting star shoot far across the sky in the Yucatán, so long he could say, “Look!” and his wife could turn her neck around and watch its burning glow burn across the night. He had watched the praying mantis babies, no bigger than grains of rice, dangling from dozens of threads, emerging downward from their cocoon in the middle of his backyard swamp as a wandering boy alone. He had seen herds of reindeer standing like a fields of stones in Lapland when he was a man. He had seen a single, small maple tree in the middle of the grass whose leaves had turned all red saying, “Fall!” He had seen the cobblestones of France, the cornfields of Wisconsin, and the beach sands of Monastir. He had seen the ferns’ patch moving across his yard for twenty years, the birch trees fall; and, up the hill, the multitude of sunspots glowing deep orange on the glowing brown-leafed ground. And he had even seen the wood thrush, that most reclusive of forest birds, sitting still just feet beyond his home, without song. He had been inside a cave in Pennsylvania once so deep within the earth that the beauty of lightless blackness he had seen that with his own eyes too. That cave might have been the most peerless vision of all, of all things in his life so far he had already seen.

Family Trees Are Flooded

flooded trees

As a boy, just under the age of seventeen, he had been told many times, as many are, to clean up his bedroom. And it was upon such an occasion as this when his father—an actual scientist living out the days and years of his washed out scientific career in the backrooms of corporate Siberia—had poked his nose into the boy’s bedroom and received from his son this response: “It’s just following the natural law of the Universe of maximum entropy, minimal enthalpy.” Indeed, it was a mess, and the energy level was next to zero.

This hadn’t been the first time he’d stuck it like that to the old man. They’d had a family policy that if a movie was coming out that had a book to it, you had to read the book first before you saw the movie. That was the way it worked in this family. And when the horror movie Carrie came out, his father had slapped it down. After all, movies like that were trash, wastes of time. But to the kid’s surprise, he learned soon afterwards that this movie was based on a book. So, he bought the Stephen King novel and read it. Afterwards, as he had read the book first, he insisted he be granted permission to now see the movie of this poor girl who, drenched in a bucket of pig’s blood, seeks her revenge.

Yes, and once, having dissected a frog in Biology, he had brought the picked over skeleton of it back home. Having seen a gruesomely comic black-and-white zombie movie on TV once called Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, the boy had been struck by a comically gruesome idea which he did not pass by the usual channel of paternal approval. In this movie, a bunch of teenagers half-jokingly conjure up (to their eventual dread and horror) the dead in a graveyard. The first to rise from his shallow grave is a corpse named Orville. He becomes the eventual ring-leader of a ragtag bunch of zombies who kill and zombify everybody before crossing over the water at nighttime on a rickety hand-poled ferry to the mainland. And the boy, at fifteen years old, buried his dead frog beside the front stoop of his house, beneath a piece of slate for a gravestone on which he had chalked in the words, “Orville, R.I.P.,” where it greeted everyone for a good ten or fifteen more years.

Empty Poet’s Bed

empty bed edit

I knew a man once who looked at a painted wall and said, “I see the Peloponnesian War in the cracks.” I knew a man once who looking through a handheld telescope held reversed saw the world of the Ancient Greeks. I knew a woman once who told me, “Modern punctuation is a scourge.” I was told once by a shop clerk in France that the jacket she had slipped over my shoulders was “tres chouette.” And I had heard the old ladies in a beauty parlor long ago gabbing that my hair was so thick. My kindergarten teacher had sent me a note in the mail one time, in perfect light blue script, years after she had cracked up, to “. . .remember me to your family.” And a gay barista in Amsterdam had told me that I wasn’t a beauty but I had something. My mother’s friend, half conked out on vodka, said I was the apple of my mother’s eye. And also, I was told by someone I can’t remember that the Chinese can do subtraction and addition faster on an abacus than on a calculator and watched it happen once in New York, how fast it was, when I was small. This tiny list of memories are almost like dreams now slipping away moments after waking from my sleep. At nighttime’s break, when all the voices who have pronounced these things are gone, I wonder someday in my absence where the violets I once grew will slumber on.

Sunstones & Sagebrush

sagebrush and dirt

At night, silent military jets dropped slow blue flares from the sky. These lights would fall gently in slow downward curves, eight or nine flares falling from the sky at once. Soon afterwards, more jets would pass silently through the airspace and more falling blue flares would glow in the night sky like the first ones. This maneuver might occur a third time and then the sky was black again as if nothing had happened. All was silent that night and any other night. Sometimes, too, in an enormous “V,” blue lights would hover overhead, too huge and moving too slowly to be any known, or even any imaginable, human aircraft, for sure a top secret military program no one outside of the military would ever know about.

By daytime, the campers camping in the aluminum shell of an abandoned trailer would sift through sifters looking for sunstones that would be caught in between the grates of the wire mesh. The boy and his father took turns sifting in the heat all day long. Later in the afternoon, the handful of stones they had caught sifting would be handed over to one of three men who lived six months out of twelve in trailers that had not yet been abandoned there. After the sunstones the boy and his father had collected had been weighed on a scale and examined under a jeweler’s loop, and then rated and priced, the father paid for the stones they had sifted out of the dirt and wanted to keep; those the boy and his father did not, the men swept into one of the four bins, according to their weight and quality. The best of these stones flashed brilliant copper from the inside. The three bearded men whose mine this was allowed the boy, as was their custom, to allow the youngest member of any team, to pick for free any one sunstone from one of the four gray plastic bins filled with them laid out on folding tables among the pale sagebrush and barren dirt. The boy’s pick was the very best sunstone in the bin. It had the most shiller, the bearded man told him. It was worth more than the total sum of all the stones they had bought together.

In the evening, after making supper and cleaning the dishes with as little water as possible, the boy and his father played chess outside. The boy always won, trying game after game to make his father a better chess player, however mediocre the father’s mind was in this. They played until it was nearly dark, just before the jets returned. For the son and his father, it would well be said, many years later, that these indeed were the best times in the best of times.

Rusty Enamel Bowl In Dark Leaves

rusty enamel bowl

There are just so many things that get laid to the side. And later on, these things are sometimes seen. Sometimes, they are nothing besides an old toothbrush stashed in a closet, or a drawer, or a little forgotten travel bag that was used by a guest once or twice. Sometimes they are eighth grade papers that were written for a science teacher in a white lab coat. (The handwriting when such things turn up is mostly remembered.) Sometimes they are packets of photographs—remembered like all the mis-direction in life shot off like a handful of bottle rockets. A tiny, and now crusty brass dish from North Africa. A root carved into a limbless human form from Jamaica. A World War II vet’s wallet found on the sidewalk and never returned.

Later on still, these things that were laid to the side turn out to be more like lengths of trees whose trunks were half-sawn through in eight or nine cuts for future firewood, but were abandoned forever in the woods when the chain grew dull. Sometimes, a letter written with good intent, dated, but never sent sitting on a shelf under spent cartridges of toner, unused color photocopy paper, and obsolete technical gear that seemed useful at the time. Overall, these things can acquire their own unmistaken beauty the way a wooden fence does after its unstained pickets have been weathered for more than a dozen years somewhere along the roadside.