There’s a lot of leaving in this place
Things you would hold
A blade of grass
They shake out of your hand in a twitch
And then where are you
Standing on the stoop
They blink here and there like a heartbeat monitor
Count them so you remember how many leavings you bore
Hold them in your hand
Like a cage with a stone, grass, and bird
Keep it latched and believe in yourself
Believe that you can make it alone
I have been told at times that I can have a dark and negative mind. I’m not nearly as bad as I once was in my life, but I can still go there. Probably the area that I come up with the most disturbing scenarios has been around my children. Since we’ve had them I’ve had visions of car wrecks, house fires, unexplained illnesses, and them going missing, getting lost somehow. I know I am not alone in these weird, fatalistic visions. Lots of parents, or at least the ones I talk to about such things, struggle with this type of thinking at times. But nothing could have prepared me for, not even my deepest, darkest self could ever have imagined, the horror that happened in Newtown, CT, last Friday.
I have a friend I chat with online during the work day, and he brought it up that morning. When I told him I hadn’t seen it, knowing me, he encouraged me not to look at it. I didn’t. I made it all the way past my lunch hour before I went to an online news source. Don’t get me wrong. I knew, basically, what had happened, but I had not read anything about it, or more importantly, seen anything. And the first thing I saw sent me barreling into the middle of this tragedy, this horror.
It was a picture of a line of kids being led out of the school that morning. They looked to be around fourth grade age. They were doing that thing they do with school kids these days, where they are in a line and each child puts his/her hands on the shoulder of the kid in front of them. There were maybe six or seven kids in the line, but there was one child that caught my attention, and has held it since.
There was a little girl right in the middle of the line. She wore a light blue sweater, red pants, and her mouth was wide open in a scream or sob. Who knows which? Was there a difference? Maybe she was screaming for her mother or her teacher. Maybe she was screaming from what she’d seen as she’d walked out of her school. The look of complete terror/confusion/anger/longing for some sense to be made was so clear. Her whole face was red and wrinkled from all the crying she’d done. It was so descriptive of what that moment must have been that I didn’t even read the text of the story. I didn’t need to. I couldn’t.
And then I was her all weekend. Like most of us, and especially the ones of us with children around the same age, I walked around in a state of shock that this could happen. I spent the better part of the weekend imagining Sam’s kindergarten class and it happening to them. I couldn’t not do it. And just like her, I was in a state of confusion and disbelief about what had taken place, and how could it have happened, and the nature of evil, and now that evil all of the sudden had become so much more real and focused and manifested. But I will say that at least it was active. I was talking about it to my wife/our friends/my folks. We prayed about it in church. There was action. There was movement. Towards what, I don’t know, but things were being done. And then it changed. I changed.
I dropped Sam off at school Monday morning but, while it crossed my mind that I was dropping him off at school for the first time since it happened, it didn’t seem all that different than any of the other days I’d dropped him off. It was after I started seeing Facebook post after Facebook post about what a terrible time folks had had with it that morning that it set in. The anxiety. The fear. The powerlessness of my son being in someone else’s care in the exact same scenario those poor kids had been in three days before. And then all that stuff settled into me. It settled into my bones, and seeped into my skin, into my blood, until I am almost numb with it. I’ve cried a few times. I spent every day this week just waiting to be with them again. It’s as dark as I’ve been in years.
But then once I am with them, I change. I see them smiling, and I change. I can see in them, in their joyful abandon, in their infinite trust in me, what I need to get through this. I see where I need to reach to make it through this truly horrible thing that has happened to us.
I need to abandon myself to joy, because there is still plenty to be had. I need to wrestle with my kids, and let them tell me stories, and let them make me laugh. I need to trust because it’s a lot easier than not, and it’s a hell of a lot less lonely and desperate. I’ve done lonely and desperate. It’s no fun. My kids don’t need that. The world doesn’t need that. Lonely and desperate is what got us in this mess in the first place.
Is it time to go home yet?
The windows were frosted around the edges of the pane. The paint was old and flaking, dropping off on the sill like the snow she watched outside. Little white specks that would gather there and once in a while she would blow them off, and there would be a dusting on the floor that would stick into the bottom of her feet when they were bare, like now, standing, rocking back and forth, watching.
She wanted to know if he was going to come home. He’d left a few weeks ago with him and momma screaming at each other. Their voices rising against one another instead of their hands, and she had been grateful because she wouldn’t have been able to stand that. No she wouldn’t. The words were painful she would hear them say because all she wanted was for them to love each other so they could love her, but they didn’t. So the noise would get so noisy that she would just zone out and pretend she was reading her book or playing with her dolls. She would comb their hair and name them, and have them love each other. Every once in a while she would have the dolls scream things at each other, and momma and daddy would stop their stuff and look at her. It would run through their minds, What are we doing to her? But it wouldn’t last and they’d keep on. But right now she just wanted to know if he was going to come home.
She saw his truck pull into the driveway pushing sludge up against the edges of the tires, and the ice crunched underneath the weight. She watched him get out, tall and thin and she felt like she could smell the smoke of his cigarette all the way up in her room behind the window. His red and black flannel jacket was buttoned tight and his brown toboggan and work-boots of the same color were all beaten and sad, but still functional. His daily uniform. Her daddy had not changed. She stayed in her room.
She heard him come in the screen door, and its slapping closed. She heard their voices slow and low, and it sounded to her like they were loving one another. And that is what she imagined: them hugging in the kitchen and dancing to no music, maybe even a kiss. And then she decided that is what they were doing, she was sure. She loved them so much.
She stayed in her room. It stayed quiet until she heard his boots on the stairs.
She saw him walk in, and she watched his feet first, those boots and the way they moved toward her, and then his belt and his belly, and then his arms swaying toward her, and then his scruff of a beard, and her daddy’s eyes squinted in a smile at her, all the way to her standing there and he picked her up and she smelled the cigarette smoke now, and him, and his sweat, and the dirt from his work, and it wrapped all around her as he held her there for so long, but it would never be long enough because she loved him so much, and she never wanted him to not be here again.
Daddy, don’t go again. Don’t leave. Stay here.
I won’t, baby. You know momma and me love you, and I don’t ever want to leave you here again. I won’t leave you again. I promise.
And she believed because she heard him, as clear as the church bells from the church that was behind their house, and when they would ring she would know it was time to come down to eat supper with her momma and daddy, and now she would do that again, every night, the way they were supposed to.
I love you so much, baby. Your daddy loves you so much. You know that, don’t you?
Yes, daddy. I know you do, daddy. I love you, too, daddy.
He set her down, and patted her head. She saw him walk out of the room and close the door, and the little ballerina figure she had, with pink slippers and a pink tutu, hanging on the inside of her doorknob was swinging side to side while she heard his boots walking back down the stairs, one at a time because his knee was bad. She was so happy and so assured.
But then she felt something sticking into the bottom of her foot. It was just a slight prick like when they take your blood at school to see your type, but this was in her foot. And then she felt it in both as she rocked from side to side like that ballerina, but she wasn’t in her dance clothes but still in her pajamas, still looking out the window, still looking for a truck, still looking for her daddy. And when she looked at the bottoms of her feet she saw those paint chips from her window sill, caught from a slight dusting on the floor.
Ms. Bridgeton stood about 4’8” tall, if that. And I’d guess she tipped the scales at around 250 lbs. She was a light-skinned black woman with front teeth that protruded out from underneath her top lip like a canopy for her bottom lip. She constantly sucked at her teeth with that little noise folks make when they have a cough drop or Altoid in, which wouldn’t have been a bad idea for her. There was a slight odor that radiated around her and hovered in her classroom like the smell of a sour baby’s blanket. Her clothes looked like blankets she’d draped around herself, and then pinned the lower halves strategically to make pants. I am not exaggerating when I say that she wore thirty to forty thin silver bracelets on each of her arms. There was rampant speculation by us, her students, that she just left them on all the time, even in the shower. If this sounds inconsiderate or mean, I’m sorry. It is the truth. Ask anyone who had her that year, my senior year and the last year of her career.
At one time she had been an extremely accomplished teacher. She had taught drama for years at our high school, and she’d also taught English and Composition classes the entire time. She was a published author, and had plays she had written performed in legitimate theaters by legitimate theater companies. I know all this because a group of us who had become completely fascinated with her and dug out old yearbooks and got the lowdown.
In addition to these accomplishments the twenty five year old pictures of her revealed a very different physical picture from the one we witnessed each day. Twenty five years ago she had been thin, with a striking smile. She had one of those killer black-power afros folks sported in the ‘70’s. Think Angela Davis. The most amazing thing about the pictures was the gaggle of students who sat around her in them. They looked completely focused on whatever it was she was saying. You could tell from their faces she was imparting some sort of life wisdom and truth they would carry with them on to college, and into their adult lives. They looked completely enthralled. We were also enthralled, but for very different reasons.
We were enthralled with Ms. Bridgeton for reasons like this: she once told me I was a prime candidate for alien abduction. She said this because I told her about a couple of occasions where I went to sleep in one place in my house, and woke up in a different place with no recollection of how I got there. I left out the fact that I’d both been drinking heavily at someone’s house that same night. Either that or I made it up entirely just to see what she would say. In either case, I was not disappointed with her assessment of what had happened. She also would regularly nod out in mid-sentence while she was sitting in the front of the classroom “teaching.” Once she came back around she would send one of us to the teacher’s lounge to get her a Dr. Pepper to “get her sugar back up.” She gave a girl in our class a ride home one afternoon and had McDonald’s bags/wrappers/boxes all over her car, along with crusts of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches strewn throughout the vehicle. Maybe that explained the smell.
I had her for Study Hall as well. I asked to be placed there because I knew she wouldn’t expect anything from me, and if I so chose, I could’ve literally slept on the floor. I wasn’t quite that bold, but I did put my head down on the desk every day and sleep for that fifty minutes, and it was great. For weeks of my senior year of high school I got a mid-day nap. I was very well-rested.
One day I was shaken from my slumber: “Will! Stop interrupting my class!”
I was so out of it I didn’t even realize she was talking to me at first. When I came to I said, “Are you talking to me? What are you talking about? I was asleep!”
“I know you was talking back there, and I’m tryin’ to teach a class here!”
“What? I was asleep, Ms. Bridgeton.”
“You was talkin’ in my class!”
And then something boiled up in me that I was not expecting. It came out, and I still don’t know what made me react so violently to her accusation. Maybe it was being young and rebellious and obsessed with saving face in front of my friends. Or maybe I was just bummed she’d interrupted my nap. But I said, “You know what, fuck this shit!”
And then it was on. I swear that I never saw that woman move that fast. Come to think of it, she rarely moved at all except to get another handful of peanuts and take a slug of Dr. Pepper. But she was bee-lining back to my desk like she was going to whip my ass, and maybe she was. But I was already up and putting my stuff in my book bag.
She was saying, “I heard you. I heard what you said, Will. I heard it.”
My buddy Donnell said, “Nah, Ms. Bridgeton. He said ‘Pluck that chicken.’” The whole class exploded, and I got suspended.
I still don’t know why I reacted that way. I actually quite liked Ms. Bridgeton, and she did teach me a lot of things about writing that I used in college, and use today. I guess if I look at it in a certain way, she must have been a truly amazing teacher to get any valuable info across amongst all her, well, eccentricities. And now as an adult, I’m ashamed that I spoke to a teacher that way knowing how difficult that job can be.
Maybe I acted that way because Ms. Bridgeton and I were a lot more alike than I’d like to admit. We were both a little strange. Neither of us really fit in. We both really liked McDonald’s. But more than anything, we were both on our way out of there. We’d put in our time at that school, and we were done trying. Maybe her laziness was my laziness. “You spot it, you got it,” and all that. I bet if I saw her today, we’d get along wonderfully. In fact, somebody get me some peanuts and a Dr. Pepper.
Among the vast multitude of the followers I have here on Snackerdoodle (this multitude being about twenty friends who I talk to regularly and know all this crap about me already anyway), two have asked why I haven’t posted anything for a couple weeks. This is an excellent question. Let’s explore.
Here’s what I do: I find things that make me happy/feel good/feel useful/feel centered/feel spiritual, and I go all in. Big time. I buy things that match the corresponding activity. I buy running shoes and workout attire. I buy journals. I buy books about meditation. And then I use these things. I start running. I start journaling. I start meditating. I do all these things, hard core. I talk about these things a lot while I’m doing them. Not because I’m bragging but because this stuff really works, and I want people to know.
When I was running regularly a couple years ago, that’s all I talked about. I earnestly sought other people who were runners, and then we talked about the activity, as a group. I would tell them how much I really adored the solitude, and the meditative aspects of running. It emptied my brain. My buddy called it “clearing out the mental trash.” I took it seriously and printed out training schedules. I followed them. This went on for months, all culminating in running a half marathon. This was a huge accomplishment for me, a guy who’d weighed 350 lbs in high school. A guy who, until just a few years ago, had not done any physical activity, whatsoever, since he was twelve years old. I teared up at the end of the race with my family all standing there. It was a really beautiful moment in my life. Then, I quit.
I had been consciously pursuing a spiritual path for about five years when I hit a plateau. I just couldn’t seem to get beyond where I was. I felt stuck, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. I had met a guy who was really into meditation during those first few years of searching, and I contacted him in hopes that he might teach me how. He did. We started simple, with some breathing techniques, and things like that. I really worked at it. I had a certain room where I sat in my house, in a certain position, twice a day, for sometimes as long as thirty minutes at a time. I took it seriously, and followed the discipline. One Saturday he hosted an all day meditation workshop. It was extremely intense and, honestly, weird. The idea was you would have a partner and do this exercise where, essentially, one person would lay down on their back and breathe as deeply and rapidly as they could for two hours. This produced in the breather the same effect of a hallucinogenic trip, minus the drugs. The breather’s partner would kneel beside them and guide them if they started freaking out. I know. I know. It sounds bizarre. I was assured it was some kind Native American technique or some such business as that. But as I write this I’ll go ahead and admit that it was bizarre. But, I cannot discredit what I experienced that day. My wife and I were new parents with our first child, our son Sam. In my vision, I was holding Sam in my lap in the exact pose that I remembered my father holding me when I was a little boy, and then my father was holding me holding Sam, and his father was holding him holding me, and his father him, all the way back to God holding us all, and we were all one, and loved. Surrounded/cradled/protected by God’s love. I was weeping. I can still remember the tears sliding down the sides of my head and pooling in my ears. It was extremely powerful and that experience has truly impacted my personal beliefs today, and completely informed the way I relate to God and the world. Then, I quit.
I have at least three journals that have multiple entries, and I mean multiple entries, that say something along the lines of, “This is the beginning of me keeping a journal on a regular basis. I am really going to do it this time,” or something to that effect. I have had spurts where I would keep it up, and have real success. I could see my behavior change just by keeping a daily tally of my deficits and credits for the day. It would really work at it, and be diligent. And as a result, I would get better. I’d be a better husband/father/worker/friend. Then, I would quit.
I had only written a few pieces for this blog, and it felt so wonderful to write again. To be expressing myself in a creative way and then have people tell me they actually enjoy the way I write. I felt like I was getting a lot out of it, and people seemed to enjoy it. Again, like all my other new passions, I was talking to a couple of friends who have blogs all about blogging, and how to do it, and asking for advice. I was asking my wife, “Did you read the new one? The one about Sam? Did you like it?” I was checking my “Activity” on my “Stats” page on WordPress. Then, I quit.
So why? I dunno. Maybe it’s too simple of an explanation, but maybe I’m just human and slightly defective, and I have to really work at and commit to things that are good for me. Sometimes I do well and things click, and sometimes I’m a squishy mess. I guess the main thing for me is to keep trying, and keep attempting to better myself, even if it takes a lot of laziness and gluttony (literal and figurative) to get me to do something different.
So here’s the deal: I vow here, publicly, to write and put up at least one piece a week on here. I won’t guarantee what it will be: maybe fiction, maybe poetry, maybe something journally, maybe a silly story about having kids. Also, there’s a decent chance it will suck, but that’s ok because I’m tired of quitting stuff that’s good for me. And I really do believe this is good for me. So, that’s it. I want you all to know that I really mean this, and I will not quit on you aga…
It was a morning a lot like this one. The sun was out. It looked like summer, but it was cold. I remember it warm. It was bright, especially bright, the kind that shines hard against your eyes, almost like the light is pressing against your pupils, like two of God’s fingers there, just barely touching them. I was walking with my dog, and I remember the light off her back as well, and she seemed so pleased with herself and me and the day. She was enjoying the warmth, or that’s what I tell myself when I assign such ideas to my dog. She was there for me because I saved her, or she saved me. She’d sit in my lap while I sat in my room in that old recliner chair that I’d bought from the Mission, and we’d watch TV, alone. I wasn’t alone, but that’s the way it felt. Like the whole world had going on what they were supposed to have going on, and I’d missed it somehow sitting in my room with my dog in my lap. But back to the morning and the sun on her back, and the way it glinted off her brown hair in little tiny specs like the sun off the water on a lake. It felt so good, but I wasn’t. I was so alone and confused, and I couldn’t remember anything but glimpses of dancing and loud conversation and a cab ride. And here I was again with just her and the walking. The part of downtown I lived in was perfect, and I loved it. I thought it would be the thing that would make me happy. The houses were old, but there were people in them who made art: painters, writers, musicians, ministers, looking for God in their expression. I wanted to be like them, but I was failing. I’d picture them in their space: the painter applying paint to a canvas, and feeling the life come out of their fingers, through the brush. Or the pecking of a keyboard where a story was manufactured and presented to the reader that they might carry with them their whole life and think about and base their personal philosophy on, and believe it, and believe it had changed them, and it had. Or the drummer who built his own studio in his basement, and would play with anyone and record them and make them believe in their own ability, their own talent, because he believed that was his call, and that was his rhythm. Or a minister working himself into a lather, gathering scripture like a farmer at harvest time, and putting it all together as a feast for his flock that they might know the joy God can provide, the joy God had provided him over and over even when he thought he would never have joy again. These were the folks in these houses that we passed that morning. I wanted to go knock on their doors and ask to join them in whatever they were doing because I wasn’t doing anything. I wanted so desperately to do something. I would sit in my apartment and play my guitar, and learn all these songs. It was there that I taught myself how to sing. It was there that I would open my window and play in front of it hoping someone might hear me and ask me to join them, and even when they did, I wouldn’t. That happened too. So we would walk, me and Gilly, around and around our block, like this day. I could feel it all pressing in. My chest hurt, and I wanted to cry, and did. It was the frustration and confusion of a life that I had not planned, and one that I didn’t want. I wanted to be done, and for something to happen. I didn’t want to feel alone anymore. But I wasn’t alone. I didn’t know this that day. So I let her off her leash when we came to her field where she would sniff around and investigate. I stood there and watched her and thought about everything, and how everything I had wasn’t what I wanted anymore, and I wanted to let go of it, but I didn’t know what to pick up or where to find it, and I didn’t know what was the matter with me or why things were the way they were, and I just wanted to get out of it somehow, and I had not done it for a long time, not with any sincerity, but I looked up into that January sun and it was blinding me, and as sincerely as I’d ever said anything, I prayed out loud, “God, I don’t know what’s the matter with me, but please help me.” And He did.
I’m not completely comfortable writing this, but here goes: I have had in my life, at various times, major man-crushes.
I think a definition may be in order. By man-crush, I mean when a heterosexual man becomes enamored and slightly obsessed with another man (I suppose gay guys get them, too, non-sexual crushes, but this is my blog and I can only speak for me). You might go so far as to buy magazines because they’re pictured on the front, or stay up late and watch them on a late night talk show to hear what kind of cool stuff they might say, or find out what lingerie model they might be having sex with that week. You might have slight fantasies about hanging out with them on their boat, or joining their band as rhythm guitarist, or tambourine player.
The man-crush has been a running theme in my life. I have had lots of them. All of them have been guys I’ve never met, and never will meet. Some of them have been dead for decades. Some are writers. The biggest ones have been musicians.
One of the earliest would have been all the dudes in Motley Crue. First, as far as my twelve year old brain could decipher, they’re music kicked mucho ass. They also got lots of women, blonde ones, and they lived in mansions and stuff. I played drums, and was especially smitten with their drummer, Tommy Lee. The guy could play a drum solo upside down, which made him particularly awesome. I mean, what other drummers did that? He wore really cool denim and leather clothes, and rode a Harley. His hair rocked. Also, he was married to Heather Locklear at the time. Enough said.
In high school, I really fell for Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. Again, awesome hair. He wore really tragically hip clothes. It was around this time that I started wearing my dad’s old army jacket, and Chukka boots from LL Bean (but I only bought them because they looked worn out out of the box). He also seemed really sad and disturbed, and upset about lots of things. From listening to his music, and reading articles about him, I understand that he had a lot to be disturbed about. He had a messed up childhood with a major identity issue about his biological father and all this other sad business. And that’s what hooked me. I have no idea why because I didn’t have any of these issues. My folks were/are happily married, and all you have to do is look at me and my dad for about a half second to know that I am, indeed, spawned from his seed. But I have always been drawn to damaged people, and romanticized and lamented that I wasn’t more damaged than I was. I guess I wanted a good story to tell. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, but that will be for another time, another post (maybe?). Either way, Eddie Vedder rocked. And I still have a soft spot for him in my heart today.
In college, I took a left from my musicians and had a sordid relationship with William Faulkner. It was complicated. First, he had one of my favorite attributes: he was a deeply southern dude, but super-smart, and wrote the most beautiful language in American English. Being from the South, I detest the way we are portrayed as a bunch of dumb, toothless, racist, hicks. So anytime someone smashes that stereotype, they get a check mark in my book. And again, he was dark, and tragic. A drunk, which I aspired to as well. Also, it took a lot of work for me to figure out what the hell he was talking about in at least60% of what I read of his work. He was a mystery, which made him all the more attractive. He also had great facial hair.
The most lasting man-crush of my life has been with the leader of the band Wilco, Jeff Tweedy. I first encountered Jeff right in the middle of my own darkest time, and we really hit it off. He didn’t look cool. He didn’t wear cool clothes. He had facial hair, but it wasn’t cool. In that department, he looked more like a hobo than anything else. He was kind of nerdy. But his lyrics affected me in a way that no others had. At the risk of sounding mellow-dramatic, it was as if he was writing to me, or that I had written them myself somehow. Like they had come out of my own head. And while they were dark, there was also some kind of hope implanted in there somewhere. And I wanted to hold onto the idea that there was hope to be had. My life in my mid-to-late twenties was not, at all, what I thought it was going to be. I was alone, broke, and sad a lot of the time. And then things happened that I cannot explain, and all that started to change. And the weird thing was that the same thing happened in his life, as well. And as we both changed, the songs changed, and I kept listening. And he was still writing the stuff in my brain and heart. I even found out, after we had named our son Sam that his son’s name was Sam as well. I still love him today. I was just listening to him, as a matter of fact.
Unlike my other man-crushes, the most lasting one has continued, I think, because it was the only one that allowed me to be who I actually am. Looking at it now, in all those flirtations with all these exciting, dangerous, cool dudes, I was only looking for a way to become me. I guess that’s what we’re all looking for in different ways with these types of obsessions. That, and a sweet ass.