When you return,
if you return,
it’s only then you’ll find you’re gone.
The streets will lead
here there everywhere,
and only your somewhere will be standing still.
Your greeting will be
and it will find a stranger’s welcome.
Guiltily you’ll walk into your home,
looking all about
as though it’s a house forgotten in some dream.
And you’ll run your fingers
over your self missing
among the books and things all rearranged.
And you’ll know
something has been rearranged,
not merely your house but the world as well.
Just like that and naturally –
so as to occupy
the space taken up by you.
“Despite how open, peaceful and loving you attempt to be, people can only meet you, as deeply as they’ve met themselves.” -Matt Kahn
“But people are terrible buffoons, and will never listen. They must touch the hot iron.” -K Wolfe
Please forgive the desultory fashion in which I swan across a bunch of disconnected subjects. Just a clearing of the mind.
How much do I hate it when people begin statements in their stories with admonishment: “Remember”, e.g. “I went to Harvard. Remember: I didn’t get good grades!” or “I have been working and running around for 18 hours straight. Remember: I didn’t sleep last night either!” I don’t know if it is meant to be an invitation to pat them on the back for what revelation follows the entreaty to “remember” or literally a reminder, as if some detail they harp on constantly could be forgotten? Why does this bother me so much?
Similarly, we all have our favorite words and don’t necessarily notice we are using them constantly. “Similarly” is one of mine, probably because I love trying to make connections between disconnected things. When I go back over writing I see the way these words pop up again and again. I wonder if it’s deliberate when I see it in published books that should have been edited. For example, I noticed that Carrie Brownstein used some version of “sturdy” in her memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, more times than I bothered to count. Claire Dederer uses some version of “semaphore” far too many times in her recent book, Love and Trouble. How do we attach ourselves to these favored words and expressions?
Asking for a tap: Freelance distance learning – Sierra Leone
Let’s get the most important thing out of the way, though. The annual Sierra Leone Marathon takes place tomorrow (May 28), and money donated benefits the Street Child charity, which, since its founding, has helped more than 50,000 children to go to school and stay in education. During the Ebola crisis, Street Child helped over 20,000 Ebola orphans, providing emergency support and connecting thousands with families. Today, Street Child works in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nepal and Nigeria with a current emphasis on education in emergencies and girls education.
While you can give any time, of course, the fundraising drive for the marathon is a good time to make a big push for support. I happen to be supporting this small team of enthusiastic marathoners. I’m eager for them to make it over the top with their fundraising goal, but really I’m pretty keen for the charity to be supported in general. There are a lot of charities out there and loads of people asking for money; it happens that I chose to get involved in this right now. The results of giving are easy to see, and I guess it’s important to feel like you see some kind of result – or a direct line between what you do or give to some kind of improvement. Not just an “I will write a check to assuage guilt and not think about it again” kind of effort.
As I have written before, everything I learn about Africa is incremental… kind of one country, one obsession at a time. We all heard about Sierra Leone in the last few years because it was one of the hardest hit in West Africa during the Ebola crisis, but it’s easy for a country and its people to get lost in that kind of crisis. (Prior to the crisis, Sierra Leone was rebuilding from a prolonged civil war – and just when they were making some progress, Ebola hit.)
As part of my intro to Sierra Leone, I’ve become better acquainted also with Liberia and other bits of West Africa. Which maybe I will ramble about another time. For now, I am just thinking about drumming up money.
I have no excuse except that I let compassion have free rein. Which is often my excuse for everything. All those years not saying no to freelance work because I couldn’t. But then even when I was free of need, not being able to say no because I forgot how to say no. And even after learning to say no, I couldn’t because I thought, “I can’t leave money on the table when I could give it to a cause”. Whether that cause was a down-on-his-luck alcoholic in precarious recovery or a greater cause like Ebola orphans in West Africa.
After all, what else are we here for? I was listening to Sigur Rós’s Ágætis byrjun album for the first time in many years, and it was as though I was transported back to summer 1999 in Akureyri, northern Iceland. I was introduced to this by my friend Anna’s friend, R. R passed away long ago when she was really quite young, and listening to the opening notes of this album bring these beautiful people – who have either changed or completely ceased to exist – to life in my mind’s eye. This gorgeous prelude to the Icelandic chapter of my life, the beginnings of which were already like half a life ago.
While listening to the album, I happened to look through my college’s alumni news and saw that a former classmate had died late last year. She was in her 70s, so it was not as shocking as when people my own age or younger die (I was the youngest in my class by decades in most cases, so my cohort have reached normal “expiration dates”, but it’s still quite sad). Already flooded by the aforementioned memory plucked from me by the sounds of Sigur Rós, these fleeting moments of curiosity, asking myself, “I wonder whatever happened to X”, like today, are often followed by more nostalgia-filled grief, discovering the deaths of people who once populated life’s periphery.
Yes, of late, I see a pattern forming in, overtaking in fact, most of what I write. A lot of death and mortality to reflect on. Which is in the end why, as much as I complain, or poke at language I find annoying, I am much more inclined to think about and act on helping others, and finding meaning in the time we are here.
Time and again, time and again I tie
My heart to that headboard
While my quilted cries
Harden against his hand. He’s bored —
I see it. Don’t I lick his bribes, set his bouquets
In water? Over Mother’s lace I watch him drive into the gored
Roasts, deal slivers in his mercy… I can feel his thighs
Against me for the children’s sakes. Reward?
Mornings, crippled with this house,
I see him toast his toast and test
His coffee, hedgingly. The waste’s my breakfast.
A CoatI made my song a coatCovered with embroideriesOut of old mythologiesFrom heel to throat;But the fools caught it,Wore it in the world’s eyesAs though they’d wrought it.Song, let them take itFor there’s more enterpriseIn walking naked.
When I sent out my latest CD mixes (the physical CD ones) I enclosed with them the Norwegian version of KitKat. It almost does the Norwegian version, Kvikk Lunsj, a disservice to compare them. For people who like chocolate and KitKat, Kvikk Lunsj will probably change your mind and you’ll be a convert in no time. I am not sure why I made it my mission to proselytize. I don’t care for chocolate or KitKat and am not really invested in anything Norwegian, but I guess when there is something that is so clearly superior, and I can spread it around the world, I figure why not.
And I am not alone. Clearly the word’s out that Kvikk Lunsj’s four fingers can make part of a fist to beat the shit out of KitKat.
–Eddy van Vliet
The city is covered with places you
took from me. Full of joint
footsteps, full of joint laughs.
They were sheltered by dreams and if need be
love grabbed the gun to protect them.
Tell my legs how to evade
what belonged to them.
Tell them. They refuse to believe
that the theatres have burned, restaurants
were hit by plagues, terraces vanished
into thin air, hotels closed,
the courtyard was demolished.
I bow my head and think
the rain will not hit me. Thus
I shall forget what was taken from me.
Today would have been my uncle’s birthday – my uncle who died last year in November. As with all losses and the mourning that follows, it has been rough, especially for my mom, his sister. I’ve written various bits about the loss and all the things you lose along with the person (the shared memory, or, as my mom put it the other day, “I was the person who had him in my life the longest of anyone alive” – in a sense this is true. As the older sister, she was there, 1.5 years old, when he came into the world, and with both of their parents gone, she is the only one who was there, and up close, for the rest of his life).
But in losing someone like him, we gain a deeper appreciation for who he was, and more than that, for what he taught without even trying. As I wrote at the time of his death: “the man collected everyone who came into his life, from “stray” people, to new friends, to ex-wives and ex-wives’ future families to new loves and their families and friends” – and this is always the thing about him that stuck with me during his life and now “post-life”. Perhaps because it is the thing I aspire to most. I find that somehow he was able to make it work, but I just encounter the most stubborn and traditional of barriers. I touched on the thought the other day: why are we so territorial and stingy with our love and acceptance?
Sure, I am a dyed-in-the-wool misanthrope, a come-to-life Oscar the Grouch (my hero, my idol), but it’s not actually who I am inside. Like my uncle, I am curious and my capacity for wanting to love people and show them compassion is boundless. When a former partner, who became a close friend, moved on and met the woman he has hitherto spent his life with, I was elated for him, but I lost the friendship because she was too jealous about its continuing to exist. When I got twisted into a mercifully brief emotional vise earlier this year, I swiftly got over the disappointment of it and thought we’d be friends – I tried to at least leave the door open to friendship on his terms but got burned by the partner/ex-partner/who knows now what she is/was because that became a question mark. Those details don’t really matter – I understand why these people got jealous, angry, irritated, upset. I just don’t think they had to – I have at least as much care and compassion for them as for the other party (the ones I actually knew directly). They have no way of knowing this and probably would not care because I guess there’s some intoxication or self-righteousness to be had in directing hatred or frustration toward perceived threats or annoyances. And all I can think is: I am sorry. I don’t think that holding onto hostility – or feeling hostile in any sustained way at all – is a way to live.
That is not to say I never get annoyed or hostile (often reactions to feeling hurt). But these things mend, and I look at situations and people (even virtual strangers) to see the good in all of them, to see what they must have gone through or experienced. If I could, I would be like my uncle and “collect” these people, too, into a distant but extended kind of network of people – like-minded or not, I am sure that if someone I cared about, even remotely or briefly, loved these people, they must be remarkable in some way. I’d venture to guess we all have a lot more in common than not.
Confronting mortality – both one’s own (and one’s own brushes with death) and others (so many losses, some obvious, some hidden) – it has always seemed ludicrous to be so insular and self-absorbed about love and particularly about welcoming and accepting people into your heart. My uncle, may he rest in cycling adventures and untold numbers of over-the-top characters and events on whatever plane he travels now – today, his birthday – and for all eternity, managed to live this challenge and invite others to live in this way too.
He taught by example, sure, but I really wish he were still here to ask him how he did it.