015. Flyweights

All is dark on the northern front. San Francisco is lit up like embers across the bay. We are whistling south on the 101, moving closer every minute to the red cabled slopes of the Golden Gate and to that concentrated, low-burning city. The roof is open and the cold midnight is getting sucked right down into our seats and I am as alive as I’ve ever been, sitting in the 80mph dark next to your slow-burning heart.

We aren’t saying much, just circling through the tracks on your phone to find the ones we like, and taking noisy deep breaths of the darkness. I think that 90% of the time I’m with you is laughing, and 5% of it is talking about weighty things and 4% is talking about foolish things, and that leftover one percent is the sliver we spend in almost-silence. All of my skin is prickling with beautiful missable input, the quiet dividends of post-communion. Mammoth tides are pulsing beneath our non-words, my ears are humming with tentative hopes, my hands are restless for yours. Our silences are never really silent, just sub-aural exchanges.

We rocket onto the bridge–thin lighted arc through the dark–and the black sea spreads out in all directions beneath us like an inverted night. We’re totally untethered from the earth. I stand up in my seat, head and shoulders all the way through the roof, the wind so loud in my ears that I think I’ll never hear again and that’s not even sad. Wind is tearing into my eyes until tears (hot and filmy) stream over the sides of my face and into my hairline. For a moment you’re poking your head through the roof too, your eyes only half on the road, fingertips on the wheel, trying to stay in the slim golden lane–I’m nervous, but the bridge is almost empty and the night is so beautiful. There is no room for caution.

The feeling still pumps through my windy skull on the other side of the bridge as we slump down and rebuckle our seatbelts: no room for caution. This (you, your light) is too beautiful.

 

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014. Addis, Remake Me

Early yellow light on the yellow walls of the room. A small room, a just-enough room. Three stories above Kenenisa Street, and I cannot find the edges of myself. I am totally formless, just spirit and not even that–undefined, borderless, in the most disturbing of ways. Unable to stand, as I am lacking legs. Unable to breathe in the exhaust-smeared air, as I have no lungs. I feel myself everywhere and unformed, just an endless web of connections, agonizingly bereft of a nucleus. Just try to walk down the stairs as an immaterial being. Just try to splash water on your face.

Oh, there. Coffee brewing on the hostel patio–that familiar sting at my nostrils–thank god, I have found my nose. This nose, just sprung into being. Created in involuntary response, as are most created things. This one olfactory edge of my being–found, to my great relief, on the front porch.

Mombella (regal hostess of the hostel) had blanketed the porch with foot-long strands of new grass–unbearably green, their sinews still flowing with soil-water. She had just finished roasting and grinding the coffee beans whose crumby evidence could be seen under her legs, and was poking a small open stove, where the beans were stewing to a tarry medication.

Addis Ababa was so beautiful. Part of me winces to remember it, it was so beautiful. After many dark, swirling, haunted months on the Swahili coast, I finally found this thrumming city-of-sunlight where I didn’t know the language, and began breathing quietly. I lost my tongue, found my lungs. The streets of Addis were filled with small tin cars, like toy cars, painted in the colors of schoolroom blocks: sky blue, lemon yellow, apple red.

There was so much smog sometimes that at the end of the day, the insides of my nostrils would be lined with black grease. I wiped it away in front of the bathroom “mirror,” just a square of glass lined by reflective silver paper, and rinsed my fingers under the tap. An American doctor I met said he knew he was taking years off his life by breathing in the Addis atmosphere– “The same as smoking a pack a day, at least.”

One day it rained, and then there were just mud rivers coursing through the city’s street-veins, the fumes washed right out of the sky and down into the packed dirt, the streetside mannequins getting soaked to their plastic skins, their silk magenta dresses bleeding dye in the downpour. Taxi-buses wouldn’t stop for anyone, they just slowed to a gentle roll. Passengers rode with their hands out the bus-door, holding open umbrellas. I sucked a popsicle in my seat, my hair in strings, soaked inside and out.

I cannot help but react hungrily, even violently, to God–sometimes I think I was born in pure reaction, a concavity shaped around God’s good creation. I’m a plaster mask on a face I adore–my contours owed fully to the life forms around which I’ve been molded. Any beauty in me emerged only in response to much greater beauty: this desire, this hurrying-towards, this feeble imitation.

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013. Southbound Saurez

Last summer, in the peak of July, I drove from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I could’ve flown–the plane ticket would have cost less than the gasoline that my ancient Camry consumed so casually–but I had to drive, had to cruise through the scorching western summer, had to swallow California inch-by-inch, had to move very physically through that strange, burnt wilderness.

I was in LA again last weekend to see The War on Drugs with a good friend, and this time I took Virgin Atlantic. Flying has its pros and cons. The upside was how I arrived in LA by mid-morning, after one tiny, painless flight. The downsides–and these may be specifically affronting in my world–were all in some way connected to the TSA: I had to stand with my hands over my head inside the scanning machine (a hatable surrender-pose), an agent patted down my waist and butt (“oh, that’s just a zipper!”), another disrupted my meticulous carry-on, and on the trip home, my solitary souvenir was forcibly confiscated.*

When I drove down to LA last year, everything was colored with heartbreak: the vibrating desert, the gas stations where I stopped for iced coffee, the charred black hills just north of the city, the whole sweltering sprawl of the city of angels. Subjectivity is a lifelong fever. There’s no way to get out from behind your own eyes, no way to see a clear and de-lensed world, no way to see anything as it really is. You’re always seeing a kind of interpretation of things. I think this is better acknowledged than ignored.

That summer, I repeated a three-song playlist** for the whole drive down, and somehow I didn’t get tired of the songs. My AC wasn’t working, so I kept the windows down and drove as fast as I could. I could hardly hear the songs above the roar of the pavement and the wind. You lose your sense of speed in the desert when there are no other cars around. 90 mph feels like 50. At 100, a little breeze starts to trickle through the interior of the car. At 105, I finally hit my groove, took off my shirt, leaned back in my seat.

I remember crying hysterically on Highway 5, in the middle of the agronomic American barrenness. Watching everything wobble in the wide, empty heat: grass, tarmac, turbines, air. Skin sticking to the seatback vinyl. Hoping all the sadness would be flushed out of me by the time I reached the coast. I remember finally pulling onto the cool slopes of Santa Monica in the mid-afternoon, emptied and skinned. I could not tear my eyes from that band of sea-blue between the buildings.

Last weekend, my heart wasn’t broken, and Los Angeles felt a little less poignant–that’s how it works.

On Friday, Terr and I went to the Troubadour in West Hollywood to see The War on Drugs. The night air still carried shreds of spring cool, and we arrived way too early because we were excited. We ordered onion rings and beers and sat on the smoky interior balcony and watched the crew set up the soundsystem in the saloon gloom. I could not believe how beautiful the world was.

Later we moved down to the sweat-and-gum-stained floor. Adam Granduciel (my stringy-haired celebrity crush) took the stage, made a crack about the venue’s showerhead (still broken since the last time he visited) and rolled into “Under the Pressure,” the opening track on Lost In The Dream. It was so strange and wonderful to hear the songs I’d listened to a million other times, now resounding at a size that filled the room to its rickety limits and commanded four hundred hungry souls with easy authority. I will never get over that surprise: music de-recorded.

I was slow to pick out melodies. Reverb was moving through the crowd like it was a body itself, physical and swaggering. His drawls were falling all over me, getting knotted in my hair. I love the physicality of live music, I like to feel jostled by much-loved songs, to feel them on my arm-skin afterwards. I love the bass in the ground, and the big hollow ring in my skull when the music stops. My favorite song–not on the album, but in concert–was “An Ocean In Between The Waves.” Granduciel knelt among the cords and speakers like he knew the sounds didn’t belong to him, like he was just a chosen channel.

I wonder what we mean when we call something “transcendent.”

My guess is that any time you forget yourself for just a second, it feels like transcendence. Whenever something is so beautiful that it frees you of your own eyes–when it’s the only real thing to you in the entire spread of existence–there’s this momentary sloughing-off of subjectivity. You’ve finally lost your lenses. You’ve been replaced by the beauty in front of you, made irrelevant.

That’s one way to get free.

mojave


*a bottle of exquisite tropical Iguana hot sauce
**Taste My Sad” by Bear//Face, “Anna Sun” by Walk the Moon, & “Harlem” by New Politics

 

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011. Strays

From the National Greyhound Adoption Program website:

Race track surroundings are a greyhound’s life since birth. Because the racing greyhound has lived such a sheltered and regimented life, becoming a pet is almost like being “reborn.” Even though most former racers are over two years old when they leave the track, most have not been exposed to daily sights and sounds commonly found in your home and surroundings. Car rides, toys, TVs, children, stairs, kitchens, street noises, and almost everything else you consider normal are all strange to a former racing greyhound. As a result, they will be curious, awestruck, and a little frightened as they enter their new lives. They need time to adjust to these new surroundings and each one does so at a different pace. With a little understanding and love, they adjust and blossom very quickly into loving and well-mannered pets.

I’m happy you’re thinking of adopting a rescue. So many rescues come from backgrounds of force or abuse or neglect, and that’s just what they expect from even the best-intentioned new owners. You reach out a slow hand to pat its head; it flinches, cowers, bares its teeth. It expects hostility where you offer only softness. A learned response, the only way it knows how to be.

But I think that, of anyone I know, you’d be the person best able to acclimate a once-mishandled pup to a kinder world, to a kinder way of being. You, more than anyone, could help to reprogram its old expectations of harm and betrayal, its old stances of fear and defensiveness, maybe plant in its spirit some little germs of trust or restfulness. Coax it out of self-preservation mode, tease out a tail wag or a slobbery ear-kiss. Turning a fearful pup into a beloved pup is such a sweet & honorable act of redemption.

You have a kindness that just stuns me sometimes, that I don’t know what to do with. You sing to me in a voice too lovely for our parkinglot surroundings; you’re an excess, you’re an overflow. You say, “I don’t care what you’ve done or where you’ve been,” and those words fall foreign on my ears, they ring of un-credibility. Between the two of us, I don’t know who’s the bigger unbeliever. Sometimes I want to apologize for the misgivings and doubts that I bring into this space between us, but they’re hardly my fault or anyone’s fault, just the byproducts of a world not good at loving, and can I make a tiny confession? I love the way you hold just my hair and shoulders when we kiss. Part of me weeps with relief when you do.

We’re beside your car, or dancing under a night-tree, or balanced in the rain on the edge of the city. We’re standing heart to heart. Mine is moving at too many bpms, but maybe I’m not falling for you, maybe I’m just out of shape. I’m trying to be a realist, and I’m thinking about all the years of rough movements and easy exits. I’m flinching at the harshness that I’ve grown to expect, only to find you touching my face–my heart–with the gentlest hands.

How can we (two like-hearted strays) not be “curious, awestruck, and a little frightened” at all this?

I just settled into the glass half empty
Made myself at home
And so why now? Please not now
I just stopped believing in happy endings
Harbors of my own
But you had to come along, didn’t you?
Break down the doors, throw open windows
Oh if you knew just what a fool you have made me
So what do I do with this?

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010. Oh, What A Beautiful View

i.

Last Saturday, we climbed up to Bernal Heights, though we didn’t recognize it until we were above the rainy city, curved on three sides by the sprawl. We could see the green peppered sea, see the neighborhood we’d just come from, see tree-groves and industrial alleys, see roofs and shreds of graffiti and the whole pastel urban quilting that equals San Francisco from a semi-distance.

There were two swings hanging from a tree near the top of the hill, which we hoarded for a solid twenty. And there were moments–while we pushed off from the hillside, spiraling over the steep city–when the only thing tying us to this budding, decaying earth was a thin cord of nylon. Plus a few even-thinner cords of affection, just a few tugs away from snapping.

ii.

He commented on how amazing it was that so many people existed in such a relatively small area (this dangerous human density), and how sewage systems were such an impressive feat of engineering (so essential to our concentrated existence). I don’t know why that made my heart hum–maybe because his was a complementary way of seeing things.

Eyes that I don’t have, but ache for.

iii.

In ZenPirsig writes about the classical-versus-romantic divide, which can kind of be summed up like this: Romantics see a thing for what it appears to be–an idealization, a totality, a finished object–the colorful city-quilt that might, on a good day, signify something higher than itself. They understand a thing’s essence. To dissect it, to detail its inner workings, would be to empty it of power.

The “classicals” see a thing not just for what it seems, but for what it actually is or contains–the substrata, the skeleton, the precise, unbeautiful reality. They recognize the crucial smaller parts from which a thing is constituted, its underlying forms and systems, its necessary foundations, its internal logic, its elements and implications. They cannot see anything without also seeing what it’s composed of. They dissect to understand, and understanding isn’t optional.

Maybe I’m relaying this wrongly, but I have to include the happy ending. Like Pirsig, I think maybe we’re wide enough to see the world from both angles at once. Utter rationality and exhilarating here-ness! Gut and reason, holding hands.

iv.

I wish we could open our eyes
To see in all directions at the same time
Oh, what a beautiful view
If you were never aware of what was around you

 

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009. Travel Light

I mourn the end of things preemptively, reflexively; I know loss early and expectantly. Maybe I’m too familiar with the motions of losing (people, homes, possessions, reputations, continents, pasts), can hardly even hypothesize a reality other than one of continual loss. All I’ve known is this open-handed life, palms upturned in the broken dual-gesture of begging and release. Unable to hold anything for long, the sieve of my spirit accidentally letting even the important things through.

My brothers are the same way, I think. When we meet a kindred person or place or community, the inevitability of its eventual loss is built right into that moment of introduction: meetings rimmed by partings, newness already shot through with the dark singing stains of coming loss.

Every beginning also contains its certain end. Bud, bloom, decay. I want to believe in something different, but I don’t know how.

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