matter, bent into life

I’m writing this on c’s computer, sitting on the bed in a mostly empty room. My computer’s dead at least for now, and the bedroom furniture is mostly piled in other spaces, which aren’t quite rooms in this house. This is the one room, enclosed, with walls and doors, and it’s under reconstruction. My computer just flashes a gray folder with a question mark. These two things have become inseparable, in an existential #firstworldproblems sort of way.

I get preachy sometimes about purging your junk, burning old papers, not leaving boxes full of clutter for your progeny or the people you leave to sort through. A couple years ago, sorting decades’ worth of receipts and pictures and lists of things that might matter (once you list too many things, Roy Clark says, the list signals chaos more than order…or something. I lent the book out and my notes are saved on the dead-for-now-or-forever hard drive.) at c’s mom’s house, i felt grateful for blogging and email and facebook and the things that keep our clutter contained and intangible, thinking of it as thoughtful consideration for future generations (“Hey, we fucked the planet, but at least you won’t have to sort through shopping lists from 1973, because they’re all on my phone!”) But i’m wishing now that pictures were all in boxes instead of hard drives, future generations be damned because they are anyway so they might as well have a bunch more old crap to dig through.

We watched the first episode of the show Hoarders on netflix the other night–i’m not sure why, other than it was suggested and we’d been swimming in sawdust all day and it seemed refreshing to see a bigger mess than yours. L.E.C., do you remember when we moved into the Mabel house and the cabinet under the sink was stuffed so full with plastic grocery bags that we couldn’t get it closed or keep anything else in it, so instead we put the bags in a 100 lb burlap potato bag hung from the wall so it looked like a grownup bag stash, and even if we’d reused 100 plastic bags a week we couldn’t have gotten through that stash. The people on Hoarders have whole houses like that. And at 1 am, crawling over a pile of pillows and Dall sheep skulls to get to the desk drawer that might have contained a startup disk I vaguely remember having seen once (it didn’t), it seemed like a very fine line between responsible record keeping and diving headfirst into a ceiling-high stack of plastic bottle lids looking for a sock while your horrified relatives and therapists look on.

And no, it’s not backed up, because i seem to put backing up my shit in the same category as taking pills and calling people back and it just doesn’t happen, but sometimes when i’m trying to remember a poem i can google it and find something i blogged 10 years ago, and sometimes socks do show up in a box full of lids so i guess it’s worth trying.
photo

the blue mountains march out of the sea

“On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between…interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world…

“…In the country one’s solitude is geographical–one is altogether outside society, so solitude has a sensible geographical explanation, and there is a kind of communion with the nonhuman. In the city, one is alone because the world is made up of strangers…”

(Rebecca Solnit)

We had a long layover in Seattle coming home from Ohio via Oregon, and took the train downtown from the airport for Indian food and some aimless wandering, which i’m finding less enjoyable as i get older and perhaps only partly because whenever i’m wandering in cities i end up buying books, which i then have to carry around for the remainder of the wandering. I bought a book of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry and Leslie Marmon Silko’s memoir, and we had an overpriced ginger beer just outside Pike St. Market, because it was something concrete and identifiable that i remembered from February in the rows of things to eat and buy. c bought socks at one of the gear stores that isn’t REI because he hadn’t done laundry and airport security lines were getting embarrassing, and i remembered when i was 20 and a guy conned me into something weird that i never understood by telling me some story about his wife having a baby and him losing his wallet and all he needed was for me to buy him socks at the Seattle REI and he was gonna do something to repay me, which never happened, of course, but somehow it put me into a good mood to walk into REI with this (to everyone else) clearly crazy man and buy him socks, getting weird looks from the beautiful Seattle REI people. So that made it worth it, even if, somehow, i lost 40 bucks in that deal.

I’d been reading Solnit’s Wanderlust, which seemed appropriate given the amount of time on the O-state trip we spent sitting, on couches, restaurant chairs, plane seats, car seats. After eating as much as we wanted to eat and failing to find anything else of interest in downtown Seattle (i looked longingly at the Ferris wheel. c didn’t.) we returned to the airport with hours to spare, and i intended to write something then about walking, and Solnit’s book (worthwhile if, like me, you have a tendency to intellectualize the actions of the body rather than turn to the body, but not quite as worthwhile as i’d hoped), but i can’t think in airports anymore, maybe like i can’t wander aimlessly in cities without getting irritable. Solnit speculates that it’s better done alone. She’s probably right. So i’m trying it now, and i’ve finished the book and read 2 others since, and most of my walking has been up and down the airstrip, in moonlight, with a purpose, and very little to interrupt me.

We stopped for less time than the little time we’d planned in Chicago to see Ammie, and on a walk to the lakeshore saw where the lake had dressed all the winter plants in ice, and they looked like teeth or wings or sometimes just plant-shaped ice.

In Ohio, we walked in the cemetery, and cousin Elena and i put a knit mushroom on our great-grandparents’ 3-way headstone, and then walked back. I wrote an essay in the years since i was last in Ohio that, now that i’ve gotten it down, seems like my official thoughts on the cemetery, and doing weird silly shit is all that’s left now that i’ve worked out my thoughts on the caskets and the relatives (Warrantied. Mostly unremarkable.) We had to walk fast to get back to grandma’s in time for the next scheduled sitting event, so i didn’t have time to show the 4 others my other half-remembered landmarks (the big mausoleum. The little Civil War headstones, worn rectangles with rounded tops, tilted like spruce trees).

In Oregon, we walked to beaches, through the redwoods (this was California, technically) and barefoot on the sand dunes in cold rain. I was poorly dressed, for the most part. On the beaches, i looked for dead things, and found what might have been a seal femur that i gave to some people digging through the driftwood with buckets and more focus than i had, since i couldn’t justify traveling with a femur, what with all the books. On another beach, a little Superman action figure with his right foot missing and a red cape the same size and shape as the scapula of something i found in the same pile. Arches of styrofoam particles marked the tidelines in a way i didn’t remember from past beach walks, and dead birds. Golf balls. So many golf balls. Dead things. On one beach, a weird amount of shoes. I wonder about the tsunami in Japan, and other things i don’t really understand well enough to know if they have anything to do with anything, even if being on foot does mean you’re living in the whole world. My feet went numb on the beach beyond the sand dune trail, and on that beach there were bottles–empty glass liquor bottles mostly–and plovers. I don’t know why so many bottles. The plovers nest there. I put my wet shoes on for the walk back.

a blur of color and light

photo (17) I finally got a new bike. Well, it’s a used bike, but we’re starting a new life together. It’s been too long. The old one was a gift, a half-joke, and cheap, and these last couple years riding it felt too much like work and not in the good, efficient exercisey way that biking should. It creaks in weird places and technically belongs to an imaginary person whose name i’ll keep secret but once she was dreamed as a blur of color and light. She never came for her bike, even in the winters i left it unguarded and snow-covered on porches or sheds, so i kept riding it. Until Tuesday, when a friend sold me hers, loved and well-cared for and a reminder of why people fall in love with bikes. Why i did. It’s dark now when i bike up the hill to work in the mornings, and the moon’s back in the consciousness of the north. This morning, it reflected through broken clouds on the lake, and i rolled onto the little beach, stopping as the front tire hit the water, marveling at the sensitivity of working brakes. Thanks, Kate.

*

I used to bike to work in the dark early mornings, also to make coffee, but without a hill or a lake and no chance or startling a moose on the way, and the Rasputina cover of “Brand New Key” was like my power ballad: “don’t go too fast but i go pretty far.” I had a green and silver mountain bike that got stolen, then an amazing blue beach cruiser, both of which i rode in ways they were not intended to be ridden. Still, they all represented a kind of resistance to cars and dependence and straight lines. Remember when biking was political? When everything was? Even the recently replaced (but still sitting on the porch) bike has a sticker that says “the revolution will not be motorized.” Which is most likely true. But.

*

I tried to find something useful to reflect on relating to 9/11 and nonstop wars and reread old blog posts (now that i’m trying to get back to blogging), and what i found was that i’ve been tired of it for a very long time and rehashing that doesn’t serve much of anything. But i did come across this story about birds getting trapped in the memorial towers of light in New York, and the decision to turn off the lights at intervals to let the birds go. I think it was the only useful thing i read today. I remember something about the realization 13 years ago that whales in the Pacific were vocalizing more and differently because shipping stopped after the attacks. Pay attention to these interconnections, these blurs of color and light, working brakes and moonlight. The revolution may not be anything but that.

useless-smart & squirrel grace

photo (16)

Yesterday was one of those glorious fall days that gives the two-week season its reputation, all gold and red and deep blue, warm where the sun falls and cool in the shade, a promise of something about to change, but not yet. There’s still some new snow on the mountains, offering some definition to elevations that have already faded to shades of brown.

I spent much of the day sitting next to a hole watching for impending collapse and/or signs of changes in c’s consciousness while he whacked a rusted lid that’s older than i am back into place over the septic tank and then cut better and different holes in the tank. A friend came to sit with me for a bit, and asked, watching c’s dirt and oil-stained back twist around with the lid, “does this make you love him more?” I said maybe, even as it made me also hate the house more, and then we reflected on being useless-smart, able to “coordinate” and “facilitate” and edit and revise the shit out of things, but when it comes to not dying in holes, we both find ourselves at the surprised mercy of others, horrified to realize that we might not have thought about the fact that breathing decades of stored-up poop fumes can kill you and precautions should be taken to avoid it. c bungeed a utility fan to the ladder. And I’d been convinced for months that all the bungee cords were mysteriously lost forever and resigned myself to life without them, never to be mentioned again.

Useless-smarts aside, we’ve been negotiating this contrast a lot this summer, the questions of whether a sunny day is a demand that we go out and enjoy where we live or that we stay home and do the work to ensure that the house where we live doesn’t fall apart. Both are important, but i’m far more resistant to one than the other. I’ve been thinking a lot about the pros and cons–though that’s probably too reductive a way to categorize them–of stability and rootedness, and in recent weeks about the different things a season represents. Though of course it wasn’t intentional (what is?), my creative thesis ended up being mostly about finding home, settling in, settling down, whatever you want to call it (edited, revised, validating that i’m the kind of smart that doesn’t do shit for digging holes). Stuff about choices and gardens, about not leaving a place a lot of people leave (one of those essays was just published today on Vela).

This summer, there was a local series of well-intentioned and questionably executed storytelling events focused on seasonal life, with an emphasis on jobs and travel as what defines seasonality. Perhaps because i’m (still) reading Walden and perhaps, as i said later, i have a hard time just liking anything, it left me a little irritated. You can live a seasonal life from a single acre, if you’re paying attention, and that acre isn’t necessarily imaginatively restrictive. Still, i do feel an occasional twinge of nostalgia for the days when i identified with the cranes rather than the squirrels, for not having to deal with the holes. Of course it was never that straightforward, but some things are remembered more easily than others, and the grace of cranes is easier to see than that of squirrels. 

So, right now, there’s this big hole ringed in red fireweed gone to seed behind the house, and other broken things accumulating, and a deliciously stacked woodpile, 8 producing tomato plants in the living room, c’s still breathing, , i’ve got another useless degree and americans don’t read anymore, but now i know where the bungee cords are, and it’s another gorgeous day, my last Sunday (which is a Monday) of the summer work season, and i’m enjoying my day alone in a house i love and hate with bread dough and coffee and this MFA writing habit challenge, which i’m hoping will, if nothing else, get me back into blogging (i think i’ve said that before…). 

Thoreau, who doesn’t annoy me half as much as i expected him to, has c’s tolerance of small animals in built spaces, and wrote

The animal merely makes a bed, which he warms with his body in a sheltered place; but man, having discovered fire, boxes up some air in a spacious apartment, and warms that, instead of robbing himself, makes that his bed, in which he can move about divested of more cumbrous clothing, maintain a kind of summer in the midst of winter, and by means of windows even admit the light, and with a lamp lengthen out the day. Thus he goes a step or two beyond instinct, and saves a little time for the fine arts.

#yesallwomen

I do this thing with the internet where I read way too much about one thing–a news story and the flood of responses to it, usually–and then spend days filled with disjointed rage at whatever happened and what it says about society and culture and i sputter on and on to c about it, trying to explain both the event and the cultural context (he’s lived in Denali a long, long time, and it’s only kind of America) until, exhausted, i just go back to pictures of cookies or flowers or something that i’ll be able to talk about in public without feeling completely weird, and feeling guilty about the degree to which i’ve chosen isolation and denial over engagement and participation.

But then sometimes i think, you know, that’s a silly thing to think, and really oversimplifies my community as being somehow separate from the rest of Society (and when i say that, i say it like a teenage stoner wearing shoes scribbled with anarchy symbols…do kids still do that?), as if that’s even possible. And just to get to my point, the latest internet black hole i’ve fallen down is #yesallwomen, and the platform the internet offers to the new generation of misogynists, and the women and men who are sharing stories of assault and harassment in an attempt to demonstrate just how common, even universal, it is for women to live with fear and anger about the societal expectation that men will feel entitled to their attention, at the least, and that violence will be a likely result. Fucking society, man. And as i read my friends’ Facebook posts about harassment on campuses and streets and bars, my first thought was bitter and simplistic: and that’s why i’m glad for the lack of public places and populated streets and bars with strangers in them in my life. But then I started realizing what bullshit it is, the way i’ve separated myself from the problem, the way i’ve forgotten.

As many of you know, I used to be something of a regular at the Denali summer dive bars. I’m not gonna say I regret it, or claim it was a waste of time–it was fun, a lot of stuff happened there, i’ve got some good stories. But I was thinking today about apologists, and the way transgressions are spoken of in a place thought of by many as NeverNeverLand, Denali/Denial, and the way actions are separated from context everywhere, and, perhaps, even more so in a place where context is often separated from context. So you do a shot with a guy, someone everyone likes and you think you should too, and later he asks you to kiss him, and your first strategy is to remind him that he’s married, which he declares irrelevant, and persists, until, on a shuttle ride home, he dives over a seat and latches his teeth on to your shoulder, through two layers of clothing, and there will be bite marks in the morning. Ha ha, silly drunk man.

Another night, another man, someone i knew struggled with addiction and general awkwardness, and I felt for him, I wanted him to be healthy and feel comfortable, because that seemed like something a human should want for another human. Once, he told me I was “the best intellectual we’ve got,” and that meant something to me, then, so i’d talk to him. And he thought that meant eventually I’d go home with him, and when I made it clear that I wouldn’t, and that, that night, I was going home with someone else (yeah, i played that card), he turned to leave, and then turned back and kicked me, hard, in the shins, and if not for the drunkenness would have taken me with him when he slammed into the wall behind me.

So I’d mention these incidents, and be met with an eye-rolling, “oh, _____ (insert name of legendary Denali drunk), what do you expect. Depending on the charisma of the drunk in question, there would be an affectionate grin or a disgusted snort. Those were the first moments I thought of today, and then others, and they bore me, and they make me angry.

I remember reading out loud in high school my “autobiography as a writer,” which at the time fit on two sides of one sheet of lined notebook paper, written in pen, because even in 2000, that was how school sometimes worked. I wore shoes scribbled with anarchy signs. And I remember summarizing the stories I’d act out with dolls and sticks and stones as a child, sort of the gestation of my writerly self. There were complicated stories of women’s kingdoms in the sky, where Totally Hair Barbie reigned over a group of flying horses and women who had arrived there via a portal in a closet in a terrestrial shelter for abused women, and they would swoop down to earth on occasion to exact vengeance on their oppressors. “Everyone knows the Ken doll is a rapist,” I remember reading. The girls in my class kind of laughed, and my teacher smiled. I was proud of that line; I knew I’d entered into a more complex relationship with the audience by including it, and I liked the approval. I’m right, I thought. They do know.

And i think now, how the hell did I know? I was and am now surrounded by good men, enough of them that I rarely saw good men as a luxury, but the norm. And yet, I knew to watch out for the Ken doll.

Last i heard of my Ken doll, he was strung naked from the ceiling of a kid i hung out with in high school, who’d taken him home first to film a portion of a group project for English, and then kept him, and then described his fate as a morbid art project, and eventually I stopped asking. The biter retired, is featured on a t-shirt. The kicker hitchhikes a lot. I used to pick him up, but I don’t anymore.

restless

IMG_1323I wrote a little spring poem last week, with a room full of people who were also mostly writing spring poems. It was a guided exercise where we wrote words associated with a place, and other people added words to our lists that they thought matched the originals, and then we wrote something using their words rather than our own. This was in the midst of my last weekend with the thesis, a pleasantly interactive and scribbly evening to interrupta lot of last-minute neurosis. Sans scribbles, my (revised) anticipatory pasque flower place poem:

 

The river is restless. Cold

breeze greets new flowers

in constant push-pull with the sun’s warmth,

the scent of pollen and decay.

Squirrels dance slinky lines through spruce branches.

My clumsy foot

kicks my coffee, a brown stream

over tundra, bound for the river.

 

(Thanks to Nicole Stellon O’Donnell!)

surfaces

IMG_9329

We haul wood from the shed to the house in two orange plastic sleds, connected by rope and a carabiner, and these days, the driveway would be better for skating than walking, if the person navigating it knew how to skate, which i don’t. On the almost-undetectable slope, the second sled slides perpendicular and bumps up against the first, while i struggle to keep upright. A log rolls out and slides a few feet away, i fall on my butt trying to retrieve it, repeat.

Where i pull the sleds over the places c spread sand or the snow melted down to gravel before refreezing into this absurd sheet of ice, the noise of the scraped plastic changes into something more textured. I remember “cinder sledding” at Wupatki: taking those little flying saucer sleds up on snowless Woodhouse Mesa on snow days, when school was canceled in town but it was all bare cinder and blue sky at home. Jealous of my peers, who i was sure were sledding in town, i propelled myself down the mesa on plastic disks, shredding my purple stretch pants in the process. It wasn’t that i didn’t enjoy playing on the mesa when there wasn’t snow, but that *other* places had snow, and the snow day forced comparison.

It’s a dull task, mostly, something useful and physical to do on days i’m holed up with the computer, which is often. Years ago, hauling wood down to my little cabin on the hill, i listened to an itunes playlist i’d made myself for just that activity, titled “wood on the hill songs”–energetic songs with bittersweet lyrics focused on the miserable glory of being wherever you were at that moment, and some murder ballads. Sometimes i still listen to it, and reminisce about how much has changed, and the pleasantness of level ground and a second heat source and musical nostalgia. It’s a nice routine.

Today, though, i was feeling a little paranoid about The Bear. The first bear, an injured three-legged winter bear who dripped blood on the trails before we got home from Arizona, and Thailand before that, hasn’t been seen or left evidence of itself in several weeks. While we were traveling, we read that it was being followed by wolves, and wasn’t likely to live long. And now there’s another one, seen on the river, and this time with a cub who i’ve only heard described as “pug-sized.” A pug-sized cub would be just a month old, not adapted to be awake and walking around yet, a sort of premature second birth. They’ll be looking for food wherever they can find it in a world they don’t know how to deal with. What’s left of the snow after the weirdly warm days that likely thawed their den has refrozen, and the ground is too cold to dig even where it’s clear of snow and ice. It’s strange to think of them, alien to winter, trying to survive.

So i jump at the sudden movement of a squirrel or magpie out of the corner of my eye, and, sliding around the driveway, think about how equally clumsy i am on this absurd ice sheet of a driveway.

Image
The edge of the ice. While it’s not fun to walk on, it’s fun to crawl around and stare at.

It was worse a couple weeks ago, when the temperature was near 50 some days and all the snow slid off the roof. For a few days, the world had an almost science fiction-y feel, every surface unfit in some way to walk or ski or drive on. During those days, i realized how content i am being house-bound, when friends were going stir-crazy from the lack of skiing. I was glad to have a big, time-consuming indoor project (writing a thesis) on days when the outside world was so difficult and confusing to navigate. Water on top of the ice made the roads extra treacherous, and walking on recently hard-packed snow meant post-holing up to your knees and water seeping into your boot from the bottom of the hole. A friend told me about her dog stepping briefly onto the porch, slipping, looking around in disdain, and going back inside, DONE.

When i made my obligatory slide off the road, an 8mph hydroplane that didn’t quite turn the car around completely, i, having lost any authority over our direction, thought well, we’re bound to hit something soft at some point. My passenger and i, and another friend who, passing by, decided to stay and watch the slow-motion rescue, looked at the stars, brilliant in a clear sky, and the faintly moving band of northern lights, standing comfortably, relatively uncovered, on the wet ice. I’d never seen the sky like that here, and been so warm at the same time.

Soon there were four of us, taking tiny shuffling steps around the cars to shovel gravel and attach the tow strap, and with some help the car slid out as easily as it had slid in. it felt otherworldly somehow, and i, usually absurdly self-conscious when i do something stupid in a car and have to ask for help, felt no shame at all, because in this sci-fi world where everything is coated in warm ice, what can you expect but to slide off of it? It felt too ridiculous to be critical of myself.

Now, frozen again, the ice keeps caribou and voles from their food, and keeps people from skiing and mushing, and keeps us all talking about it. It keeps me from feeling pressured to go outside, which is dangerous, because i am, despite all appearances, a kind of lazy person prone to long sedentary periods as long as i have books and the internet. Glorious days remind me to get out and go, but crappy snow and an ice driveway and melted ski trails let me sit around, as if i’m doing exactly the thing the world is asking of me. I think of the bear and the pug-sized cub, and the level on which they can recognize that what has happened is very wrong for them, that what the world seemed to be asking by warming and thawing their den (if that is what happened) and what the world can now provide for them are very different things. I’m rooting for them. I just want them to stay away from my ice sheet.