Monday, March 29, 2010

Everything That's Transitory Is But A Metaphorical Reference

We are on the ground when it happens.  The Minneapolis, Saint Paul International Airport. The tarmac is wet and slick. Ice patches and quilts the pavement that hasn't yet been touched by the sun.

US Airways flight 1549 was only in the air for three minutes before it began its descent, marching its way back to earth, to its watery landing atop the Hudson.  It would never reach its destination:  Charlotte, North Carolina, the Queen's City. 

"If someone's going to land a plane on the water, this seemed to be the best possible way to do it," an eyewitness is saying, his voice rising higher as he brings the plane down to the water.  He uses his hands, brushing palm against palm, to show how the plane hit, belly first, the nose tipping up just a little right before it came sliding to a stop, narrowly missing the Washington bridge. And he holds it there, his hand, the plane, as if watching, waiting for the passengers to begin to appear, afraid to look away, to look up to the camera once more until he is certain that everyone is safe. When he does look up, he looks all the way up, past the camera, to the sky, shielding the sun from his eyes.

The terminal is silent, our heads craning upward, eyes fixed on the news, as we watch the plane descend, still frame by still frame to the river.  When the passengers are finally shown exiting onto the wings and into the rafts waiting in the icy January waters, we lower our gazes one by one, to make contact, with anyone, everyone accounting for someone, before we rise from our seats, baggage in hand to fill the cabin of our own plane. We all look back once before we slip through the gate, smiling at the person behind us in line, until the very last person is left eyeing the seats where we once were sitting that are already filling with strangers. 

In Charlotte, the Queen's City, the City of Churches, birthplace of Billy Graham, the crime index is one and a half times the national average.  It is yet to outlive its Revolutionary roots, a "hornet's nest" still. In New York, the rate is less than one, as if the passengers had a better chance on the water there.

In Minneapolis, it is just under two. In Boston, where we are headed, it is one and a third and safer than where we are. Of course, we have no way of knowing as we board, file down the narrow aisle to our seats, the news of the downed US Airways flight still fresh on our minds, that a year from now, almost exactly to the day, we will find ourselves reading about a young girl who chose to take her own life, hanged herself in a stairwell, dying each day for months before her death, pushed to the end by her peers, their anger swelling and consuming her. And when the news will break, it will feel heavy, as if we are watching the hull of the plane bobbing on the river once more, doors open and taking water in, wing tipped and waving one last time in the air, though, sadly, the allusion will end there, with the nose of the plane being pushed under by tugs.

But, all cities are built on our memories of their dead. All thin cities,  trading cities, hidden cities, continuous cities, and those who stay become reflections of the memories themselves. We stay in order to become them. 

We have maps, with trajectories in blue and red to help us find our way.

News of her death will touch us all, and we will set our papers down, sun creeping in across the morning to the tables where we are sitting, waiting to start the day. Though we may pause only a little while, we will take the story with us to work and carry it back home at the end of the day, when the sun is finishing its long, slow downward climb. The news will serve to reshape us. It will reshape the way we talk about lives.

Joseph Campbell argued that, "We all need to understand death  . . . to find out who we are. We must constantly die one way or another to the selfhood already achieved." We must constantly die because "becoming is always fractional.  And [only] being is total." 

The very next day, after the young girl's death, we will hear of the crash again, the one year anniversary, watching the footage once more from the safety of our homes, finally able let it all go when we hear that everyone on the plane survived, that all one hundred and fifty-five people survived. 

But even still, the living are outnumbered by the dead.* 

When we are finally seated, pulling the belts tight across our laps, locked securely into the belly of the whale, you look out over the heads before you, eyes fixed on the woman explaining how to ensure we stay safe while we are in the air.  Without turning your head, while the woman is pointing out the exits at the front and to the rear, her arms bending and unfolding in crisp clean lines, you tell me, "It's the long winters. The long winters are to blame." And though you never say it, I know we have been thinking the same thing.  Soon, the Minnesota grounds buried deep beneath the snow will be behind us, tailing away as we climb into the clouds.  Through our windows, the land will look whitewashed, as if the ground itself were lighted from behind, and it will feel good leaving the light behind. Transformative. We will break through the clouds into the deep blue sky, waiting for the moment when we land, when we rise once more from our seats, and out into the very world for which we are escaping these lives. 

The title and the lines from Joseph Campbell are taken from, The Power Of Myth.

*from a line in Italo Calvino's, Invisible Cities.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

When In A Fit Environment For Man

The rain was so heavy we had to pull off the highway.  We inched along the exit ramp, following the taillights of the semi trailer truck before us, rain pelting the roof and hood of the car with a solid sheet of noise. We took shelter at a Sunoco, beneath the canopy beside the pumps, watching the water hit the pavement hard and turn to mist. The mist hovered above the ground like a low, dense fog.  We were thirty-three miles from Albany, one hundred and sixty-nine miles from Boston, twelve hundred and sixteen miles from Minneapolis.  You looked back to the rain shrouded road behind us as if to gather back the miles we had traveled just to end up stranded here.

"It will pass," I said, resting my hand on yours, though just then I wasn't sure it would.

Interstate ninety stretches just over three thousand miles.   From coastline to coastline. The longest highway in the U.S. We talked about traveling from end to end one summer, summers from then, stopping at every city and town we had passed along the way here:  Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, South Bend.  Even then we knew we never would. But, we needed to believe that we would make it to our final destination, that we would stay there long enough to need to be freed every now and again, knowing that the surest sign we were "home" would be when we learned to need to leave.

"This is my first time in New York," you said, unable to hide the disappointment, though it had nothing to do with the rain, as if you thought it would be smaller, the Manhattan skyline stretching across the entire state, leaving it in shadow.  When you looked out at the rain, leaning over the wheel, chin resting between your curled fingers at eleven and one, your eyes wandered, scanning for the horizon you had imagined you'd find, head tilted to the side, lips pursed with concern.

We traveled out of Erie to get here. A one night stay in a road side hotel, in a small city of hotels. We arrived late. The desk clerk eyed us with some interest and some concern, hesitating a moment, dangling the room key above my hand before setting it down carefully, slowly, her fingers resting on the edge of the card until we both looked up from the exchange. "Enjoy your stay," she said at last, sliding her hand away, though I could tell what she really meant was "I hope you get to sleep soon" aware that where we were was nowhere near where we were headed. I could see it in her eyes. The pity I had for her for being anywhere just like here reflected in her inward stare. But, I'm sure she saw it often. The pity. The mourning for her life.  Everyone there walked hundreds of miles ahead of themselves, each eyeing the next day's travels, calculating the mileage in their heads, dividing the world into two halves, where they had been and where they had not been. 

The next day, driving away, we eyed the horizon for long stretches of time. Every once in a while we imagined we could see the shore of the lake by the same name, the sound of it wearing the hope in our hearts away. And though we never said it, we vowed never to return, our labored breathing giving us away.

There were brief patches of sun along the Ohio Indiana border, where everything stretched on for miles without apology.  Otherwise, it had rained the whole way. I tried to explain it later, the difference between the two, to new friends who had asked about the drive, about what we left behind to journey here as we drove through rural Massachusetts, littered heavily with houses, with town after town of thatched roofs and narrow, brightly painted doors.

"Imagine metal so rusted, you can picture it no other way," I said, the comparison lying wait in the pause,  " . . . and that is Indiana." The slow upward nods of their heads told me all I needed to know, the image settling in, the weight of the world shifting, if only for a moment, and resting in the tall grasses there, and maybe for longer than that, too. 

The trip had been stretched from two days to four.  There were quick stops with family along the way.  Madison.  Dundee.  In Dundee, at my brother's home, we stayed the night, the rain breaking long enough that we headed out into the back yard, the grill, the lawn chairs shiny and wet, the clouds holding off from letting go of the next two days of rain, to let us pick up a bat and ball.  A three inning game, the laughter rising high above the score. When the sun was gone, the clouds too heavy to hold off any more, we headed in to eat, alone together, at the table set for six. There was no way to know when we would pass this way again. And after every bite, we looked across the table at someone new, smiling, words dying humbly in our mouths, each unspoken word meeting its mark, soundly. 

At last the rain began to lift, passing on just as suddenly as it came.  We inched back into our seats little by little, until we could feel their full support, our bodies pressed without regret against them.  We watched the front pass beyond the ridge of trees a few miles ahead, waiting even longer still to make our way out onto the road.  To our surprise, the sun followed close behind.  Just as torrid as the storm. Without a word between us, together, we opened the doors and climbed from the chamber of the car, our gazes focused on the clouds delivering rain to the towns and roads that lie ahead where everything else in the world was happening, and even further than that still. 

*The title is taken from a line in William Gass's, "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country."

Friday, March 12, 2010


The stairs lead up. I pause. Stand in the sun shining down through the skylight. I am in the hallway long enough that the man at the desk behind me clears his throat. 

Can I help you? 

I do not turn around, but raise a hand and wave.  A slight wave, to say, no, not right now, but I may need you. There's no way to know for sure that I won't need you. I can feel his eyes on me for a few moments longer before he looks away, or down, or inward, just not at me. Yet, what I want to do is ask him if it is okay to climb the stairs. I want to climb toward the light. I want to knock on every door along the way to the top. I want to ask anyone who answers how long they have been here and if they notice the light when they come in, how it's like being under water, the way everything looks green, the soft pool of light shining through the surface where the sun shines on us brightest, as if to say I see you there beneath the waves.  We would lean out over the railing, staring into the light, following the line of my arm pointing up, pointing at the glass but far, far beyond that, too.  One by one, everyone would step from their doors, and we would all stand in the stairwell, leaning out over the railing, looking up to the light, to the infinite possibilities.

The stairs are old.  Marble. Beveled where they have been traveled most, marking the way in and out of the building.  Years of travel rest in the shallows of the grooves.  Footfall both soft and sound have worn each step away. I follow them with my eyes, up from the landing where I am rooted, the way I used to follow the snow sled treads my neighbor made out across the open lot behind my mother's house to the edge of the field, plowed and tilled and covered with snow.  I would stop there every time, at the very edge, the tracks finally disappearing at a distance well beyond what I could see from where I stood. I only wandered out into the field to follow his trail but once.  I followed, looking down, eyes fixed on the tracks, feet falling between the lines, making my way slowly across the snow covered ground until I realized I had gone so far I could not see my mother's home, and the treads had begun to disappear, covered over by the wind. I looked ahead of me and behind me, turning back and forth unclear what moving forward might mean, sure I could not find my way back home.  When I was certain I would be stranded where I stood, consumed by the snow and cold, my neighbor rode up beside me, stern and unsmiling, uncertain why I might be following him.  He didn't say it, but I could see it in his eyes, the shield of his helmet raised to the top of his head. He didn't let me on. Instead, he motioned to me with a quick wave to follow him.  I followed him on foot, behind the sled, back across the field until both our homes could once more be seen in the distance. He pointed briefly in the direction I should head, his finger extending for a second to show me the way before he sped away, swallowed by the drifting white.  I ran without looking back, eyes focused ahead of me, tripping on the uneven ground over and over, tumbling to my knees now and again, scarring the knees of my jeans, until I reached the lip of the field, safe and sound, planting both feet firmly on the ground there. It was months again before I followed his tracks, though I'd watch from the safety of my mother's kitchen as he would ride away, the roar of the sled pulling me from my seat to the window every time.  When at last I chose to follow him again, determined not to lose my way, armed with a small bag of seeds and stone to mark the path behind me, I found the tracks broken by patches of green, winter finally giving way to spring.

I lean further back, to frame the well, to aim my focus so that it reaches all the way up to the light, capturing the details of the rails and stairs all along the way. A bag of postcards hangs off my wrist, rustles against my arm. It's why I am here. The postcards. Each one with a specific destination. Each one with a specific set of directions. A way to reach out to the world. A way for the world to reach back. They are black and white photos:  Jack Dempsey; Memphis Slim;  Port Blakely, Puget Sound. The post card of Port Blakely is of the harbor, where two large four masted barks and two schooners are docked. It is winter.  The sails are drawn.  The dock, but for the boats, is empty, barren, littered with snow and under construction still.  William Renton landed here in the calm waters, first, the wake of the ship drifting still on the water behind him. And those who had journeyed with him, spilled from the belly of the boat, walking out on to the untouched land, hands stretched before them, waiting patiently no more to grasp at possibility, to claim a land so white it glowed.  Clean.  Clear. Open.

A quick click of the shutter and the photo is mine. I cap the lens, the image trapped inside for later. My footfall echoes down the last staircase. The door is heavy. I lean into it, press my shoulder against the wood. The street outside is loud. Cars, people, busses pass each other before me, merging then pulling apart. Storefronts fill and empty. Everything is destination. We are destinations.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


We wandered here from Harvard Square. With each step, we moved inward. Contented. Centered. We had shared ice cream from J.P Licks just steps before. Coffee mocha lingering on our tongues. We had eaten it too fast, standing by the doorway, huddling against the wind, trading the spoon and cup back and forth between bites, our hands touching each time. We both eyed the other's hand before looking away when we were sure the cup had been passed safely. The sidewalk was crowded and no one noticed us there, voices and faces lolling, together. When we were done, you pocketed the spoon, licking one side and then the other, holding it up to show that it was clean. Satisfied still. 

Only moments before, we had paused at the "question wheel." I walked slowly all the way around, leaning down, the cards flipping in the wind.  Some were white.  Some were yellow, pink, or blue. I read them.  Each one.  Working my way from top to bottom.  I could feel others leaning in behind me, reading over my shoulder, whispering the questions out loud, as if voicing them might make them come true. And I whispered them, too.  Everyone was whispering. I read until I came face to face with the man who curated the wheel.  He was standing there, announcing to anyone who stopped to ask, that he answered all the questions, and there had been over 12,000 questions posted so far. There were questions about love and love lost, about death and the death of hope. Some questions were about dreams, how to achieve them when the path to them was overgrown. Some questions were about ambition and whether it was wrong to want others to fail.  Some were about pets that had run away and if he thought they might return.  Some were about tests in school and of personal strength and sometimes both. Some were about the questions themselves.  Some were about his answers, why he thought he had the right to try to answer them all. He was a big man.  He had to be because each question was really about him, what we all wanted to know about him, how the pieces of our own lives allowed us to take a piece of his. And I imagined him bigger still, before today.  How each day, each question, each answer nicked and chipped away. What we might have thought would be revealed was difficult to say.

Raising my camera, I focused the lens, adjusted the light meter, the aperture. I took a photo of the wheel. I took a photo of him. He was standing in front of the descending sun, the light seeping around his raised arms, his torso, his head, as he beckoned people to come nearer, to ask him anything they wanted. "You can ask me anything. What do you want to know?" his voice was full and deep. It filled our chests when he spoke. Rattling in our rib cages.  Beating like hearts. Or, at the very least, the hearts we thought we ought to have instead. 

"Ask me anything . . . ask me why the earth is round . . . ask me why all empires fall . . . ask me about the difference between loneliness and being alone . . . ask me anything at all . . ."

People stopped and listened, glancing at each other, at strangers, unsure how they should feel. I listened and glanced, too. He promised to answer all our questions.  Every one of them.  Even the ones we were forming then. And, we, who were listening, gave in, released from the heavy burden of our lives, if only for a little while and for the first time since we left our families, the wombs of our lives together. It wasn't what he said, though what he said was perfect, but how we heard what only we could hear, nodding, believing. 

When he finally lowered his arms, we moved to write our questions down, waiting in line, crowding three or four at a time around a card table filled with empty cards. When we reached the table, I set my camera down, lens open to eye the horizon. I wrote my question quickly, in bold, elongated strokes. I didn't want an answer. Not really. Just asking was enough. I already had the answer. I looked out across the square.  The sidewalks were lined with people, rivering beside the streets. Cars drifted beside them, slowly. The subway rattled the earth beneath our feet. Geese cried almost unnoticed.     

It was the first cool day of fall. Cool enough for a hat and scarf. Cool enough to capture our breath, to capture the breath of this man, yelling out to anyone who would hear, his words clouding up, as if the words themselves were spirits, lifting slowly into the air above our heads. The sky was graying. The clouds shifting, backlit by the descending sun.  It was my first New England fall.  It would be my first New England winter, as would be the everything in between.

I dropped my question through the narrow slot.  I heard it land atop the countless other cards beneath it in the whitewashed box then turned and waited patiently for you to do the same, though you lingered, pen spreading black ink across robin's egg blue. You wrote deliberately.  Carefully. Others finishing their questions around you.  And when you were done, you looked up as you stood from leaning down, satisfied, determined, slapping the card against your palm before slipping the card into the box.  You paused a second, or maybe two, then turned, okay with letting the question go, looking back just once. 

We walked away in silence. Hands jammed into our coat pockets, you clutching the plastic spoon, cameras slung around our necks, our eyes watering in the wind. The crowds thinned. Storefronts reflected the street perfectly, as if we were inside looking out. Until the alleyway, and we stepped in.