Author: admin

Ode to a continuous series of attempts

I read a new book and feel, in the following days, how its author’s chosen style, their playfulness or their terseness, their pathos or their whimsy, in short, the flavor of their prose, invades my own, like rainwater flooding a woodland. I select characters, develop narratives, construct sentences, play with words the way they do, conscious all the while of my behavior, which feels as obvious as ingratiation, as cheap as bad forgery, and as profane as body snatching. It’s unsettling to observe how profoundly my literary diet can express itself through my writing, how plain my influences are, mostly because this tendency—to imitate—is not particularly flattering to my ego, which craves originality, and which is continually rooting through the messy drawers of my mind in an effort to dig out pure, new gems, hitherto undiscovered and unplundered by any other.

I vary my reading diet of influences in an attempt to strike gold, the way a sorcerer might dump ingredients of a varied nature into a cauldron in the expectation of unexpected magic. There’s always a chance—a strong likelihood, really—that all this diversification results in nothing but green, gray, brownish gruel. A crude flurry of brushstrokes that imitate, in their ardent but misplaced agitation, a million different styles, but fail to synthesize from these disparate elements anything of significance. A keen reader with similar tastes in books could undoubtedly pick out what motivates me as a writer, and I’ve had that happen before. Once, many years ago, a friend told me, sincerely and with no contempt, that they could see clearly what influences we shared. I felt then a satisfying bolt of recognition, and something else—shame?—at failing at authentic originality.

Of course, I’ve heard the rebuttal before, too: “There’s nothing truly original.” Everything in increments. Everything an accretion of prior secretions. Everything built on the legacies of others. A person’s talent is nothing but an aggregate of influences, impressions, and outside ideas, received and cultivated during formative periods. But that doesn’t seem to stop anyone from chasing, through the mazes of the mundane, that flash of flesh that is different, and weird, and raw, unprocessed and unfiltered, but immediately recognizable nonetheless, by its power to demand attention, and interrogate convention, and spit on readily-available assumptions. But there’s also the fact that originality is not always celebrated nor rewarded (you could argue that to fulfill the basic definition, it must eschew both of these, to an extent). Originality requires a creator to run the risk of being too edgy, too weird, too unreadable, in short, to expose their vulnerabilities to a critical public in the hope of obtaining that most fragile of currencies: kinship, acceptance. The alternative is safer by far: to stay pleasant, readable, anodyne.

But I won’t deny that it’s more motivational than anything else to stumble across an author and know, from the first page, that I am about to experience something new, something weird, something summarily rejected by a conventional publisher and then strewn online, like lined pages chucked from a window onto the street below. Something that they wrote for themselves, as an encapsulation of what makes them tick, but that, magically, happens to resonate with me.

I feel then that desire: To cross unknown lands, to scale their mountains, to breathe deeply at their peaks. To predict their weather by way of their cloud patterns, to sight the paths of their swooping birds, to build small, private fires in their luminous valleys in the darkest hours of the night, and to know the explorable world extends farther than you could ever hope to travel, and to feel not forlorn at the limits of your own body and and its capacity to know, but overjoyed that such a place, such a time, embalmed in language, could live alongside you, and could be carried in your heart like a talisman of a faith not yet forgotten.

Gambler’s Fallacy

Autumn, again. The screendoor is flecked with sticky, translucent clusters of moth eggs. I discover, in the leg of a pair of work pants as I collect the laundry hanging outside, a suzumebachi (sparrow hornet; sometimes called “Asian giant hornet”). It approaches me full of determination, like a bullet, as though following a straight line forward, carved there by true purpose. Its eyes are dark and almond-shaped, like mine.

I sit by the window, face propped up by my fist, elbow against my knee, legs crossed in the swivel chair. There’s something about early November—the hours of moody cloudiness, the damp, chilled air, bare branches, numb toes—that makes it easier than usual to cross that splintered threshold that separates controlled consciousness from sloppy daydream.

My resume-certified qualities—ability to multitask, attention to detail, power of concentration—disappear promptly into a bed of red, brown, and yellow leaves. I slide away from connected, cogent thoughts and fall through a crack in my mind into a frigid, empty room. I can remain there for hours, more object than body but with shades of both, like a pink slab of deli meat on a styrofoam tray. Time passes like water dripping, pus oozing, oil spreading over the limpid surface of the ocean. When I snap back, it’s three in the afternoon and a dog and a crow are locked into an escalating duet, and a woman unknown to me is standing by the plum tree outside.

At five thirty, I collect my backpack, into which I stuff my thoughts and desires, and descend the elevator into a dark evening lit only by passing hazard lights. A couple of men smoke languidly by the convenience store. Fatigue taps me on the shoulder, but I don’t turn around. I cross the road, pulling my orange coat tight against me. Autumn, again.

The Fisher Princess III

The Fisher Princess I / The Fisher Princess II

The stranger lies on their two-seater sofa, a wrinkled cream-colored bed sheet tucked neatly around her body. Her hair, still damp to the touch, has been arranged so that it falls over the edge, pooling on the corded rug. Max kneels down, a plastic comb in her hand. She begins very slowly carding through the fine strands, stopping only to delicately pick through the worst tangles with her fingers. The stranger doesn’t stir.

“How you doing?” Cal asks, bringing a wooden chair over to sit by them. 

“Plummy keen,” Max says, an old inside joke. Cal feels relief then, clear and warm. In the truck headlights, arms wrapped around her chest, in a state of partial undress and shivering furiously, she had looked not fragile, but frighteningly unfamiliar to him: alien, threatening. He’d had to push past the feeling to rush to her, peeling his fleece jacket off as he jumped out of the truck, but still it had lingered—a ripple of fear in an otherwise placid mind.

Now, secure in the cabin, he feels the last of that emotion release him. He eases into the chair, resting his chin in his hands as he examines the stranger’s face, studiously, methodically, as though searching a craggy mountainside for a foothold. Her oval-shaped face is completely, unnervingly still. Every muscle is relaxed, pliant, freed from the burden of expression. A pallid canvas. But underneath purple-veined lids, her eyes move feverishly, unnaturally.

(more…)

The Path of Atalanta

I have this feeling of walking through dense gray mist, dimly aware that the cliff’s crumbling edge lies close ahead. If I avoid the fall, it’s only luck that saves me. If I keep walking, it’s only because, try as I might, I can’t configure a different choice. Time is a blazing arrow that moves in a single direction. It won’t bend. It won’t compromise. It drags you forward like a bagged body. What could be mistaken for courage is nothing but inertia. What could be mistaken for strength is nothing but streaks of blood, pooling in the chalky, pockmarked terrain of the cliffside.

I hear the repeated ding of a morning alarm, and then the warning blaring of car horns, the muted shuffling of papers, the gurgle of the water cooler, the unspooling of toilet paper, the uptempo tread of commuters, the notification bell from my cellphone. I put on whatever is trending and let it pass through me like an undigested meal. All the while, the mist from the cliff follows me like a tiny cloud. A gray shroud.

When we go to bed, it’s still there. I reach to feel its texture between my fingers. The mist isn’t inert. It bulges around me with a mind of its own. Its touch on me—cool, indifferent—reminds me of picking up and squeezing a cold peach at the supermarket, probing its flesh for ripeness.

Unable to sleep, my thumbs press against the screen of my phone, bringing it back to alarmingly bright, gold-toned life. Strawberry stirs, so I carefully arrange a pillow between us to shield him. At 2am, the night feels contemptuous, unfriendly. A hostile, imperious guardian with my best interest at heart, but zero tact in communicating its concerns. It glowers through the windows. “You’re doing this, again?” it asks darkly, as I navigate to my browser, resenting every second. But soon enough, I know, it will have come to accept the inevitability of the situation. The bitter night and the choking mist will crowd around my shoulders and dive down, headfirst, into the torrent with me.

I catch up on the latest Twitter drama—banal, petty, a waste of time for everyone involved. Sometimes, it skirts too close to a real pain point, and we all flinch at the near collision of online garbage and authentic emotion. Thankfully, an Internet Samaritan arrives with a hilariously chosen meme to ward off the sting of reality. I check the news—sad, and even sadder when it ends up referencing the Twitter drama. Content, which springs eternal from the font of the fanged Big Five, yanks me into a vortex that manages to both torment and satisfy. Ads pop up. Pleas to subscribe. Wide-open mouths on a clickbait thumbnail. Canned laughter. Trolls in the comments. I scroll and am fed more nutritionally void content.

I reflect, and find that even my reflections on this process have nothing substantive to offer. “The Internet is bad? Cold take,” I think to myself, self-pityingly. It’s too one-note, so I redirect towards the emotionally and artistically fulfilling parts of the Internet, which do exist, and which can be as rewarding as impeccably timed crescendos, perfectly peeled fruit. I read the latest pages of a webcomic, the most recent update from a blog, an ancient entry from a delightfully odd web-only novel. I find a directory of online journals styled after Geocities. Acid green, deep purple, low-res, rotating gifs, blinking HTML marquee. For an instant, the web is an oasis, cherished, fertile, its flowers and insects living in unrestricted abundance.

But I go forward, only to then double-back. Back to social media, where the longer I scroll, the less alive I feel. The night and the mist, sensing my agitation, jostle newly for my attention. Each promises a different remedy. One seeks to triumph over fear through moonlit clarity. Look at the beast in the eyes, the night says, voice like the arc of a sword swung through the air. The mist swirls around the crescent of my ear and mutters, joylessly: The path is easiest to walk when you can’t see where it goes.

“Wait. ‘The path,’ meaning what, exactly?” I whisper. “Like, life? My life, or the concept of it, or what?”

The mist shrugs. These apparitions speak only in riddles.

Time is a blazing arrow that moves in a single direction. It drags you forward like a bagged body. What could be mistaken for courage is nothing but inertia. The mist morphs into foggy memory, tenuous but real, finally resolving into the vision of my mother, at forty-five, kneeling against the floor as she cards through her drawer of silk scarves, a thousand stashed underneath her bed, all heavy with the blended odor of cigarette smoke and Chanel No. 5. I sit on the mattress, legs dangling, watching cool-toned daylight, bracketed by the window blinds, slowly enter the room.

Red Messenger

I dream of you, oddly, profoundly. I dream of you so often I wonder if you’ve hired a master of the occult to open up my head like a music box and fill it to the brim with locks of your hair. Wind the key and my mind plays a slow, sombre version of your favorite tune.

In my dream, you lie with me in a dark field in a country with no name. To be fair: Not precisely you, but the “idea of you.” The idea of you has no hair, no hands, and no eyes that I can remember upon waking. The idea of you is a messily blurred body and a scratched-out face. But the idea of you can take on a shape like a fully grown stallion and easily outcompete all opponents on the track, finishing the race with no ounce of visible effort, gleaming like the reflection of the pale moon. The idea of you is fearless before the Sunday morning derby crowds that rise to celebrate you. From the stands, I sob with terrifying, newly discovered emotion.

In the real world, the world of the living, you move around like a blood cell. Fast, energetic, determined, accomplished, self-assured. A vessel of purpose. I wish I had your single-mindedness. I wish I had your verve. You swim so easily through the crowded channels of the green, gray, blue world. I watch you from faraway, from my vantage point in a high tower. I see you refracted through social media; a professional face, front-lit, with an ironed collar beneath. I see you in the colorful stories that come back to me from our mutual friends. I read your turn-of-phrase in a thick book on the library shelf. I heed the advice you gave me years ago. Your eyes roll at me from the big screen of a matinee showing of your favorite film. I go through my inbox and find a years-old email from your old address. I see your features on a stranger’s face. I look at the sky at dusk—purple, pink, black, rose-red—and think that only you would have known the word to describe this color. I click through photographs on a forgotten hard drive and notice you smiling shyly in the background. I have to avert my eyes. Do you ever see me, in memory, in mood-altering dream? We understand each other, you and I. Don’t we? Didn’t we?

What a joy companionship is; what a liability, when it is lost. A bonfire dwindling to nothing, rendering the dark of the forest full and all-encompassing. A delicately crafted glass vial of poison, imbibed at the tragic end of a play. When I tell the story of my life, I can’t bear to completely omit you, but I am careful to limit the extent of your role. I don’t think I could take questions without releasing a torrent of intolerable feelings. Fossilized in a previous stage of life, I am a scarab, legs folded underneath me, buried deep in sand, and the moon, red and full, rises with no knowledge of me.

Coalsack Nebula

Dear Tokyo in the rain, お久しぶりです。(It’s been a while.) Here you are: your veiled blue of a sky papered in clouds and smog. The slight chill of the air feels as restorative, as I step off the crowded bus, as a cool drink of water. Silently, my fellow commuters and I pop open our clear plastic umbrellas. I feel it then: that druggy, half-present feeling of being halfway between work and home. As resonant and resolute as rain itself. You know the feeling. The mind wanders somewhere secret, while the body is securely in transit. Stasis of the physical form, while the mind parachutes out from 20,000 feet. It’s how I imagine comets: swinging around a corner of space with periodic cosmic regularity, their rocky bodies tearing through space on a prescribed route, while their hearts dream of the void beyond.

The walk from the bus stop to my doorstep takes fifteen minutes and cuts through a tunnel, into a shopping street, up a hill, down a hill, and past a ludicrously pricy dentist. I hear the call and response of the station announcements and the answering thunder of footsteps boarding a train. I hear a cheery, high-pitched supermarket jingle. I hear a deliveryman call out good evening in a loud, spirited voice. I hear a neighbor cough throatily from beyond a mossy wall. Meanwhile, the current of my own thoughts blooms and fades in a constant cycle.

The sky darkens to a deep lilac. Rainwater seeps through the sole of my right shoe. Last month, I superglued these old sneakers in a final attempt to prolong their usability, but I must face the reality that they are at the end of their lives. When I flipped them over to apply the glue, I saw, for the first time, that the chevron indents that patterned the bottoms had almost entirely rubbed off, leaving behind a smooth, frictionless surface. After nearly two years of living in the shadow of c-19, I notice that something similar has happened to my feelings about the future. Even when circumstances were dire and hopes burning at their lowest, my future used to feel patterned, textured, nuanced, possible. Now, I think of the future as something like the flat, imposing line of the horizon of each night, followed by day, followed by night. A perpetual rainy walk in which I approach home, but never reach it.

I described a similar sensation in March 2020 like so: “The future immediately twisted into nothing as the present eats itself.” Those were the early days of c-19. Not much in my life has changed in this time, but something fundamental about that sentence rings less true in 2021. Now, I feel that I have to flip the terms. The present has twisted into nothing, as the future eats itself.

Wayfinding

The day after receiving my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, I lay in bed, body weight pressed against the white sheets, finishing up an ethnography set in Egypt and India. Even with all the shades drawn, the heat still manages to enter; it muscles in, hungrily sharing the bed with me.

The cicadas, thumb-sized green gems that hang in the trees like ornaments, buzz unceasingly. At this point in the summer, their cries are not an unwelcome distraction, but part of the background noise of a season I proclaim to hate every year, but that I always come to earnestly love. A three-month period of cloudless blue skies and bright red moods. As I read, the flourescent bars that illuminate the neighborhood school grounds begin to flicker intermittently. Their amber-yellow light bleeds in through the folds where my blue curtains nearly converge, but fail to touch.

On the last page, the story takes a dark turn; the author narrates how a friend is lost, presumably forever, in a country at war. I can’t help but feel that this conclusion is left somewhat ambiguous. Not open to interpretation, necessarily, but unresolved. After contemplating for a few moments, silent in my room filled with warmth, light, and insect sounds, a greenhouse of sensation, I roll over, slip off the bed, and flip open my laptop. I navigate to Google and plug in the friend’s name repeatedly, in combination with a grab bag of search terms, on my way to discovering his true fate. “Author,” “friend,” “death,” “what happened” “?”

The search turns up nothing. Another search yields nothing. My immediate confusion at this is derived, not from the lack of obtainable information, but from the search engine’s inability to find what I assume must exist. A daughter of the World Wide Web, my first impulse is to trust that anything can be found by carefully selecting search terms, rearranging their order in the sequence, and clicking through web pages diligently, like a pilgrim organizing relics, in wait of a miracle.

I retreat from the keyboard. I open the curtains and find that the sun has set; the evening sky splashes onto my eyes like a gentle wave. I spot the bicycle belonging to the child next door: seafoam green wheels, a white basket. Its wheel is positioned in the direction of my window, inclining the frame towards me as though in greeting.

There’s mountains of information inaccessible to me. There’s kingdoms of knowledge locked away. Maybe it’s better like that. Not all information benefits from availability. A young man died suddenly, and it’s not possible to learn how, or when, or where, or why. A stranger, I think of him on his last day, threading the needle of his final hours. Walking forward until the path twisted, and then closed off before him.

Ur-Girl

Twenty-nine and rapidly losing her battle with self-disgust, the oracle takes the complicated step of formally rejecting her birthright. It’s a big deal, but, as with most of her decisions, the enormity of it is inversely proportional to her confidence about it. When she meets her sisters at a bar downtown, she is cagey, leery about questions, and secretive about her motives. She meanders from point to point. A hummingbird in a sea of carnivorous flowers.

She tries to soften the blow of her departure even as she formalizes it. She tries to play it off casually, but winds up defending her desire to leave with more passion than she truly feels. An actor in a play, in an ill-fitting costume lined in pink seed pearls, stumbling over her overwrought lines, she chatters like a parrot at the table. Cigarette smoke fills her vision. Three pairs of unfeeling green eyes stare at her through the gray haze, but she can’t seem to stop talking. There isn’t any money in prophecy anymore. Truth isn’t a commodity worth selling.

“It’s my choice,” she says. Inside her starchy, rigid white blouse, her flesh recedes with horror at the sound of her voice, which wobbles, cracks, and then fades into nothing but noise. The hummingbird, which at least possessed its beauty even when it was lost, transmutes into a blood-soaked mosquito.

Her sisters listen in dutiful, but sullen, silence. Identical oval-shaped faces hovering above thin necks and clasped hands, symmetrical as gems set in a choker. They don’t say it, but she understands what they want her to do. She takes a deep breath and focuses on their eyes, turning the key in her mind that exposes her to the current of their true feelings. The hard pebble of honesty, lost in the dirty waters, retrieved by her hand. Swirling around her sister’s irises as monotonously as stock tickers along a marquee, she reads the dull, soapy froth of feelings that collect there like tea leaves: condescension, apathy, and, naturally, glee. The unabashed and unconcealed joy of lesser members watching the scion fail.

Even more than this sisterly contempt, which she expected even as she implored them to consider her feelings, she hates the shame of unfulfilled potential, a dagger which she aims at herself and which rises in her throat as she walks home, bilious, chunky, aggressive as heckling after a poor performance. Standing naked in the shower, she punishes herself with the image of their eyes.

(more…)

Mt. Epiphany (II)

I’m not prepared to answer questions about my life, our lives, or life in general. I’ve stopped trying to fit anything into any predictive model, gilded frame, convenient pattern, or conventional explanation. I have always been opposed to self-delusion of any kind, even if comes under the guise of rationality, even if it’s only the embrace of delusion that makes life bearable. I’m at the point now where that trait is enduring its most severe test.

Every day I wake to more bad news. Imagine rising on a battlefield, half-screaming, the jeweled hilt of a Templar’s sword sliding out of your sweaty grip, to find the fight has already ended, and the ground is a fetid, marshy carpet of the dead. The contorted bodies radiating a shy, silvery light in the red haze of the morning sun. Imagine a sleeping child on a raised, protected marble altar while, just below, blood makes thin channels through the packed dirt, trickling patiently toward the center of the Earth. Dreaming in complete, perfect serenity, thumb in mouth, while the the world decomposes in record time.

I don’t try to understand pain anymore. I don’t try to process my reaction to it. I let it drip from me like pus from a wound. I don’t sanctify it. I don’t rationalize it. I don’t try to understand beauty, either. Beauty, which some call reason enough to live, now feels like weak, flabbergastingly trivial artifice. Looking up at the night sky, the constellations seem comically ill-made to me, a scraggly spread of stars arranged like a hobbyist gardener’s first vegetable patch. Looking out at the mountains, the trees are like individual threads in a cheaply made dun-brown carpet, dull, cloudy light squeaking through their stripped branches and blurring the view beyond. Looking at myself, captured on video, my posture sloped like a melting ice cream cone, my face and eyes are distant, murky, and unrecognizable.

My cynicism has reached dizzying heights, but as I peer into the scrying mirror that is self-reflection, looking into that hinterland for the signs and symbols of sadness that were the totems of my childhood, I find that I am denied even the bittersweet comfort of pathologizing the cynicism that has warped all chance of continued, permanent happiness. I’m not depressed. I am a vain and incompetent fighter, a girl who both grew up too fast and never grew up, a consumer of processed goods, an American citizen, a screaming child. I’m at peace with myself, as long as I can be honest about what I am, though I am profoundly unhopeful about the state of the world and the possibilities of my life within it. An upbeat song with bleak lyrics. To sleep, but not to dream. A sunset in a grove once teeming with fireflies, the vista fractured by telephone poles. Hitting play on a reversed timelapse and watching as the rose retracts into itself and the orange, blue, gold, pink stars blink out of life. Paying for healthcare during the leisurely death of the future.

Truth is the daughter

Dirty rain overflows the drainage ditch that bisects the neighborhood. Sewage, rank, richly odorous, rushes through outflow pipes, spraying into the air like sputtering pyrotechnics and forming huge fecal pools in a river christened two months ago with an undulating blush-pink film of flowers.

Then, early summer enters like an outrageously costumed actor bursting out from beneath a center-stage trapdoor. I eat the first kakigouri of the season: chunky ice crystals marinating in a sickly sweet syrup of condensed milk and artificial vanilla flavor. My head pounds from the resulting sugar rush. My mood depends so much on the current physiology of my body. Mind and matter are inextricably linked, to the point that I feel my consciousness most strongly in the thrum of my blood, the cables of flesh that are my limbs, the pulpy mass within my abdomen, the wet tails of my eyes extending via interlocking nerves into my brain, that limp, damp ball of gray unleavened dough. I don’t understand my mind and body as separate entities, but as clay lumps forced together so tightly they become indistinguishable. Maybe the most accurate way I envision myself is by thinking of a ladleful of primordial soup: clumps of hydrogen and carbon glimmering on the surface like streaks of fat, sulfurous smoke rising from the top. No body, no mind. Just a puddle of crushed compounds stringing together spaghetti strands of tortured thoughts that slither out, tadpole-like, after days of bubbling percolation.

The sunlight streams in from every direction, but I walk along the riverfront numbly, unsteadily, as though swimming through fog that fills my mind like a sea of synthetic liquid glue. For the fourth time in as many years, I am leaving one workplace and joining another. It’s not unusual to experience many transitions in a short period of time, and in general I do not fear change. The gig economy is all I’ve ever known. Its shifting sands have been shifting and sighing underneath me all my life. But I start to wonder if the changes I make are symptomatic of an inability to make the final choice, to stick the landing on the final twist of the “life’s purpose” knife. What salvation is available to those of us unable to pick a profession, choose a hobby, maintain a consistent group of friends, or keep a stable self-image? I think the notion of meaning in life is a fiction, but I have dog-eared those pages too many times to coyly play off its effect on me. What to do when you know something is false, but you cling to it more fanatically than the truth?