Morning World, Mourning Whirl

Parabolic stories told in whispered corners of a broken-down house, where the moonlight creeps in like a suggestion and stays there, wandering, before dissipating just enough to let you sleep.

Ego fears and slipping between a version of yourself that you left behind and an uncertain future you find yourself barreling toward.

Approaching something like stillness, and training yourself to be okay with it, without trauma and learned internal violence.

Of entering conflicts only when needed, and even then with a distilled serenity, a weightlessness, and the calm that comes with being accustomed to terror.

Half-dreamt landscapes that won’t fill all the way in on waking but which leave impressions, visions of themselves, like an image burnt into a cathode ray tube, searching for the cells that make up this generational hurt, this wandering sorrow.

And it all seems so trivial now, the shouting matches, the screaming tears, doors slammed and feelings hurt, set against what we’re now fighting, all of us, collectively.

It’s in talking past the severed connections and getting at something like communication.

Not the way it was, but maybe the way it could’ve been.

Now it’s in sipping strong coffee in the morning, awake before anyone else in the house, and cherishing this newfound quiet as much as you don’t trust it.

As much as you fear it.

It’s being able to just sit, and breathe, and appreciate your cat as he sits in front of a window, unmoving, and the stillness of the morning world around you, the mourning whirl of grief coming in slow now, like the delayed pain of fingertip on stovetop, and wondering about the original order of things, if there ever really was such a thing.

And maybe it’s even making your own order, if you can, in the honey-drip stillness of a too-early morning, before the alarm hits, before the birds can really process things, awake in the undark, processing last night’s dream and the belief that it’ll fade followed by the reality of it fading.

Like a shadow yielding to light.

Superheroes in the Time of Coronavirus

It’s in the way it feels to be out on the ghost town streets, patrolling, dressed up as a superhero and handing out food and supplies while infrastructure shuts down one step at a time, and the city gets quiet by degrees. It’s in seeing the way the sky’s colors shift, the spectrum altered, and seeing and helping the same people but recognizing the shift that’s happened all around us. It’s in passing out and applying hand sanitizer, and keeping recommended distance, and realizing that I always thought something like this would happen in my lifetime, but I didn’t know when. It’s in reading up on the spread, and vectors, and risk factors, and adjusting patrol style to account for social distancing and avoiding large crowds. It’s seeing that just about everyone is inside, except for those who have no inside to go to and are stuck, now with even less recourse than before, stuck because of a fearful line of thinking that excludes and separates, with gutted shelves and more supplies sitting somewhere “just in case,” and it’s not that I don’t understand that you can’t pour from an empty cup, I do, but I’m literally watching as our most vulnerable population is left behind. I divvy out MREs and supplies, meet up with my patrol partner and try to make sense of global pandemic with him, going out just about every night now for outreach patrol, and often feeling the weight of this thing, this boulder for Sisyphus. But I still suit up, and put on a smile, and meet people where they are, like I always have. I allow myself to feel this strain, this stress, just a bit before going out and doing it all over again. Before it was just the aches and pains of carrying food and supplies every night, then the mental strain of having to put myself in danger, breaking up fights, de-escalating situations. Now it’s an existential threat, something that’s already tearing at our social fabric and spreading panic. I remind myself and others that in times like these, we especially need to remain calm and look out for others, that we are defined not by what we do when situations are ideal but by what we do when we are tested. What we do now matters. It creates a ripple effect down the chain of causation, on and on into a future we cannot see but which we are constantly creating with our choices. Let’s make these deaths matter. Let’s do what we can to create a better future the only way possible–together.

Expiration Dates

I saw the way we danced in the wobbly reflection of a public transit bus as it passed, and I laughed, and it was like laughing could expel both air and consequences, and the way my bones creak and ligaments strain and muscles ache, I feel like I’ll need a robot body if we ever get that far technologically in my lifetime, and you smile and call me old, and I know it’s a joke, and I know I’m 30 and you’re 25, but it stings just a bit because I’ve been realizing lately that all my pop culture references are dated now, and I go out of my way to eat healthy foods, and now I’m mentally reminding myself that when I get home, I need to open up the fridge, and feel the cool air for just a second, and check all my expiration dates just to be safe.

 

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Superhero Days

 

I’m remembering my superhero days, tying old blankets around my neck and imagining them as capes, kindergarten baseball cap turned around and pulled down so I was looking through the hole in the back, and it was the cheap adjustable type with the plastic pegs, so I had it set to the last peg so it could be my mask, and the way I’d come home from school and park myself in front of the TV for an episode of Darkwing Duck before going outside our old apartment building and playacting what I’d just seen.

It was using the plastic coin bank bust of Michael Keaton’s Batman–the one with stickers to approximate facial features–not as a coin bank, because I didn’t have any money, but as an idol, a totem, something to watch over me when I went to sleep. It was the dollar store Wolverine costume I put together for Halloween, and using butter knives to approximate the claws’ snikt. It was seeing a neat and tidy world where the needy were helped and injustices were set right within the confines of a cathode-ray tube.

I carried these stories with me into and through adolescence, gravitating more then for the edgy, the dark, but still stowing away those ideals, those values, those blueprints for a better life and a higher calling. It was things like going out for daily runs in preparation for a Batman fan film I was going to do with some friends, the budget slightly higher than those childhood dollar store days but barely, and putting on our version of the cape and cowl, and sweating terribly as we shot one setup after another, but feeling the weight of being that type of character–that type of person–if only for a short film. It was, after the shoot was over, going back to my job at the movie theater and working to get myself through community college–next stop film school.

After a pivot from film to fiction, and some success in publishing, it was working to get myself into fighting shape, using the fiction to inspire the fact. Krav Maga first, then MMA, drilling and drilling, hitting bags, sparring, cardio, more drilling, and realizing that there is reality to these hero-journey stories we consume on the regular, rather there is if we let there be, and no matter how tread and re-tread the stories might be, there is gold there.

And for me, it was that first night going out, and being able to actually help, that did it. It was in the nights that followed, showing up, and getting to know the people in my community as I helped them. It was being able to reach back in time and let that little kid dressed as Wolverine know that one day he’d do it for real. He’d feed and clothe the needy. Protect people. Help them. Literally fight crime. He’d make good on that dream he always had.

 

(If you’d like to read/see more about my journey as Night Watch, you can do that here!)

Read my Editor Interview with Six Questions For!

It makes me so happy to share this editor interview I did with Six Questions For… When I was a younger writer who was still chasing his first publication, the editor interviews on SQF were like my bible. So the fact that I’ve since been published in the places I’ve been and am now an editor myself and had SQF reach out to me for an interview… It’s absolutely incredible. The link to the interview is here, and you can check out (mac)ro(mic) here! 😁

Shapes and Patterns

It’s in the way you can’t quite see your reflection now, coming away, and the great undoing that time can be. It’s in the way we smiled past punched-out teeth in the backyard boxing ring we made, cleared the ground of obstacles and debris and hit each other on the grass, midday sun gassing us a little earlier than we might expect, and thinking then and now that whether we liked it or not, fighting was in our nature. It was in the lights coming on to signal the end of the competition, and going back inside our apartments with busted lips and swollen eyes, going back to some GBA or N64 game, finishing up homework and explaining away the injuries to our parents with something about recess football. It was in dripping bloody noses into mashed potatoes, green beans, tasting blood past meatloaf, and learning how to launder out stains from clothing. It was tossing out the gloves when we got bored of that, and finding a different backyard to fight in when Zuhaib’s dad got laid off and was home all day and might see us. It was sleeping with my head sandwiched between two pillows to drown out the sound of my parents fighting. It was getting up at 5:30 to be able to hear something approaching silence. It was staying out in the cold past curfew and plunging my hands in the snow so I might feel something, regardless of what that something might be. It was sneaking back in through the broken patio door, hands as iceblocks, and running them under hot water until the tears streamed down my face and mingled with the water to bring me my healing. It was of course the way that I would punch myself in the stomach, to toughen up when backyard fight club was set to start up again, and the way that I couldn’t seem to shake myself of the habit, or any other habit really. It was getting up even earlier to watch the cartoons I used to watch when I was really little, before the punched-out teeth and frostbit hands, the ones where the good guys always won no matter what.

And those action figures. The ones with the bendy arms and legs and the tacky paint jobs, and how when I broke my arm in a fight I tried to rearrange the arm into one of those impossible configurations, if only for a moment.

How I imagined a giant, invisible hand holding me, lifting me into the air. Rearranging my limbs and actions into their own pre-ordained shapes and patterns.

 

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In Transit

To see yourself in pictures that will never be taken: a ghost of a ghost. To feel these faux-polaroids in your mind’s hands and the shape of them, the wear in the corners from wallet’s contact, and the genuine smiles, the eyes getting in on it, the weight and the wait till “cheese.” To hear the sound of the word divorce. To feel this dissolution in the heart-hurt, the shortness of breath, the physical signs that tell you you are dying. To remember that sometimes your brain can’t tell the difference between emotional death and actual. To rehear these same words spoken by your parents when you were about the age your daughter is now. To sound out the syllables like some rehearsed song in a language you don’t understand. To recall a period of your life where you saw the things that separate–the screen doors, the foggy windows–and not the views just past them. To see your daughter’s face with that same far away look, that bubble world of unknowing. To get sleep using cheap beer and sleeping pills, and to cry your vomit into the toilet when the world comes back to you. To dump these pills and to buy more when you can’t sleep again. To get on a bus and a train with these bodies around you, and the way that spills collect in pools under certain seats like portents of doom, waiting for changes in inertia to strike unsuspecting feet and bags. To see what’s become of your life as one great spill, something to slosh around and rapidly change states. To fall asleep in transit and to wake up when a mechanical voice announces a stop you’ve never been to before. To get off the train. To wake up in night snow, midnight inebriation, and the no-feel of where your skin made contact with it. To leave vomit the color of your frostbit skin and to howl your pain at a moon covered by clouds. To be taken in past red letters and bright lights and hallways choked with sick people, and to almost see the label you will receive, Just Another Drunk Off the Street, and the stinging stain of this. To be visited by the receiving and the attending, and to be given literature with meeting dates and times as you convalesce in a rented bed, steep fee but not as steep as death.

To be let out after a time, and to read about continuing treatment, and to put this in your pocket. To breathe. To go to the place you remember and to make that first date, feeling almost remade, re-naissanced, reborn.

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Tightrope Act

The thing about going from being invisible as a child to quite visible as an adult is that you’ve learned to value the perks of being seen and unseen, but you haven’t had enough time to experience either, so you’re confounded by both. At least this is Jodie’s experience of it, she thinks, as she sits in her car with the windows rolled up, AC on, and some self improvement podcast playing.

She realizes “This is my life now,” listening to podcasts on the way to and from meeting with donors, practicing her smile in the mirror, trying to get her eyes in on it, not faking so much as helping the whole process along, because the truth is that she loves people and loves the outreach she’s now able to do, but too much schmoozing makes her skin crawl just by default.

It’s crazy to think that there was a period of her life where it was an accomplishment to get out of bed once a day to make a packet of ramen before getting back into bed. Days spent in the miasma of depression, brain fog as roommate, getting lost in the middle of thoughts, and words, and actions. Seeing this again is like watching a movie from the back of the projected screen. It’s all there, the basic components exist as they should, but it just doesn’t feel right.

She remembers that Shel Silverstein piece about Melinda Mae, and how she ate the whale one bite at a time. She remembers how it expanded her mind as a child, how it shone wonder into the corners that once were dark, and so for that reason she doesn’t go back and read it again now. She wants to keep it that way, if she can. That realization that all change, all self-improvement, is iterative, is sequential, is endless.

Waking up in the morning and just breathing, with the specter of yesterday less and less a factor, but still resting on the pillow next to her. Still scarred by it, still not whole and finally okay with the unwholeness, claiming it as her own.

Of listening to the tick of the clock inside of her, and how she always meant to document this mental health outreach as it was happening, to start a blog or something, but then when it actually started happening she could do nothing but be present, even when she wanted not to be. How the people in her life gave her conflicting advice–that presence was what she needed now, or that she could use a distraction, and being stuck somewhere in that nougatty, dissociative center, trying to make a joke of it, laughing when she could, because if she can still laugh then it’s lost at least some of its power over her. Or something like that.

She’s at this place now, surprisingly okay, with the ability to work full-time, and take care of her responsibilities, and help others, and do her outreach work. This high-up tightrope act she’s doing, somehow succeeding at, and the visible, tangible way that it’s helping others. And thinking, realizing, saying to herself: Maybe that’s enough.

 

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What You Always Wanted

There’s a saying about getting what you always wanted, and she’s trying to parse out exactly how it goes without having to Google it. She’s not needing the meaning for posting purposes or anything like that–call it simple curiosity. She’s been doing her outreach for a while now, and her own unique way of showcasing the words of others (getting stories printed wrap-around style on drink cups) has only just now started to take off in a holy-shit, five-news-appearances-in-just-as-many-days sort of way.

She told herself that this is okay, and it is, the long nights spent scouring the streets of the internet, looking for a person who hasn’t been heard but who desperately deserves to be, because giving voice to the voiceless is her specialty, and she almost stopped and took another course of action when she found out that a major restaurant chain had started printing flash fiction on cups, but she kept going with her idea when she realized that they were only publishing established writers, big names, people who would be recognized. But the way she did it, you’d be reading stories you didn’t even know you needed to read, written by your hairdresser, or your mailman, or the woman you pass by every day who’s sleeping on the street.

She started doing it on a whim, self-funded, and whatever wasn’t for rent or absolutely-necessary-food got funneled into this side-project she did after work, testing out different food safe printing techniques, different cup materials, biodegradable a must, and then different inks, collaborating with various artists to spice it up a bit, etc. It was one of those things that tended to dominate conversations with friends and family after a while, and she could tell that while they were supportive, they were also looking for the opportunity for topic change when she went on about it for too long.

The thing about it is that she herself didn’t even really write until she was well into adulthood, and by then there were all those fears and self doubts, the thoughts of old dogs and new tricks, the fire alarm that blares in your head and tells you that you are Too Far Behind, that you will Never Catch Up. When she was a kid, it was AP classes and constant studying, and her parents were the live-vicariously-through-their-kid type that saw her journal scribblings as time better spent cramming, as opposed to the poesy of a budding genius. So she stopped writing for about 12 years.

When she started writing again, really writing, it was like she was coming to after a deep and dreamless sleep, and there were suddenly too many things to do all at once. She immediately had to write in every genre, every style, until she finally felt that she had Caught Up. Mixed in with all of that was reading every literary magazine she could get her hands on, devouring content like it was her job, which even back then she had the feeling that it was–or that it could be.

There comes a time when all of your hard work pays off, when the camera is on you and the kind and smiling person behind the camera and slightly to the left or right of it is waiting for an answer to the question they just asked you, and you have to pause for a second. Not because of anxiety, or rather not only that. You have to take a second to appreciate the fact that this is happening. You are not dreaming, this is not a joke, you are actually exactly where you wanted to be when you first started out.

She remembers the saying about getting what you always wanted, or at least an iteration of it. The old Willy Wonka film, the one she grew up on and still returns to every couple years. The last lines of the film:

“Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.”

“What happened?”

“He lived happily ever after.”

Poor Yorick

He keeps his feet bramble-beat, mud-puddle sheen, elastic waistband stretched past use and hanging, sagging really, on hips left to mottle in the sun, worn down from it, but he’s not worn, no sir, and can’t you see that smile on his face meant to tell you as much? If you’ll give him a dollar for some food then that’s your prerogative, but he understands if you can’t, if you need it for yourself, etc.

He’s been out on the street long enough to know the prognosis of the city. He studies its lungs as they choke for air in the twilight hours, its murmuring heart as it wakes up for another day.  It susurrates to itself, leaves as whispered self-encouragement, until the rain sticks the words to the ground like haphazard tattoos from the city’s younger days.

They call him York, because that’s where he’s from, NYC, but the way it comes out his mouth when he’s been cold all day and he’s got brain fog and his tongue is stuck in a slow-mo movie, it comes out like Yorick, and that’s fine too, if people call him that, he figures, because it’s only a name. Just poor Yorick out here on the streets, trying to make every dollar count and stretch.

And he’s here, stretching too, under this melange of sunrise sky, these oranges, reds, purples in places, it’s beautiful if you notice it, if you really stop and see it and pay attention to the design of it, like a massive oil painting in appearance, but this one’s been done in photons.

He thinks he’s lucky, he says as much when people ask him, and he’s past worrying much beyond the next six hours or so. Anything further is beyond his immediate control, doesn’t exist, and so doesn’t matter just yet. It can’t matter.

Weightless dreams when sleep comes easy, which is rare, but these dreams are like glimpses of heaven when they come to Yorick, dreams not so much of flying as floating as a feather would, on the breeze, without sore ankles and tired eyes, dreams where he sees his kids again, and they’re safe, and happy, and the same age that they were back when he last saw them, when he could see them, when they called out to him in their sing-song voices and hugged his legs that were to them the size of tree stumps.

He isn’t hard on himself the way he used to be. Doesn’t curse fate, or God, or any other unseen force that might’ve put him where he is right now. He gets up with the light and goes to sleep with the darkness, fixing himself to the firmament because that’s the only thing he can count on most days, and that’s just fine by him.

He’s got a person over at the library who’s helping him with the internet and the computers and the websites. He was on the street long before the dot-com boom, and this librarian has been kind enough to show him how it all works, why it matters, what it can do.

Yorick’s got pages of research now, the librarian lets him print for free within reason, and he keeps it in his back pocket and reviews the data by the light of a streetlamp near where he usually sleeps for the night. Pages and pages of entries, permutations and possibilities of where his kids might be, separated by cities and states, their names common enough to give him scores of results, dozens of possible addresses and email addresses and phone numbers.

At night, he pores over these pages and eliminates the dead ends and the false starts, writes notes in the margins when he thinks he might be onto something. By day, the kind librarian helps him draft emails, encourages him to get even more use out of the library, and checks out books for him under her card, because you need a permanent address to get a library card, and Yorick hasn’t had one of those for the better part of 30 years.

It’s months of this, searching, hunting, crossing out, scribbling on the pages, checking the email inbox that the librarian set up for him, day in and day out, watching the sun rise and fall, his hopes with it, all of it, changing in the way that you only can with age, by the force of time, until that one day, with a simple reply, just the one word at first, but that’s all Yorick will need for now, because a simple “hi” from his daughter is worth more than hundreds of kind words from the mouths of strangers out on the street.

 

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