The Night House

The Night House

Every day the body works in the fields of the world
Mending a stone wall
Or swinging a sickle through the tall grass-
The grass of civics, the grass of money-
And every night the body curls around itself
And listens for the soft bells of sleep.

But the heart is restless and rises
From the body in the middle of the night,
Leaves the trapezoidal bedroom
With its thick, pictureless walls
To sit by herself at the kitchen table
And heat some milk in a pan.

And the mind gets up too, puts on a robe
And goes downstairs, lights a cigarette,
And opens a book on engineering.

Even the conscience awakens
And roams from room to room in the dark,
Darting away from every mirror like a strange fish.

And the soul is up on the roof
In her nightdress, straddling the ridge,
Singing a song about the wildness of the sea
Until the first rip of pink appears in the sky.
Then, they all will return to the sleeping body
The way a flock of birds settles back into a tree,

Resuming their daily colloquy,
Talking to each other or themselves
Even through the heat of the long afternoons.
Which is why the body-the house of voices-
Sometimes puts down its metal tongs, its needle, or its pen
To stare into the distance,

To listen to all its names being called
Before bending again to its labor.

–Billy Collins

Coming Out of Hiding

Saturday was the day I ran out of excuses.

I had an errand to run in the vicinity, I had enough time. It wasn’t the perfect day for it, but favorable conditions never come.

I was going to rejoin the gym.

As a former gym rat (ex gym employee, ex fitness freak, ex road racer) I know this routine. That starting is hardest. That the people who are so intimidatingly muscled and fit and strong are commonly very nice, and when they do think of you, which is bloody rarely, they wish you well. (They themselves were beginners once, too.)

I have been both the fit one and the unfit newcomer, and I know both sides of this strange human dance.

But I felt intimidated and out of place just the same. It’s a been a long time since I ran 11 miles for fun, or trained with my friend who trains a local SWAT team, or stayed at the gym for 2 1/2 hours because I was having such a good time there.

I’m lucky, I come from a family of athletes (2 pros, one in hockey and one who played for the Steelers and went to Penn State on a scholarship), and I have the exercise crack gene. This means that once I get to a certain level of fitness and intensity of the workout, I pretty much get high as a kite, get a bolt of boundless energy that makes the rest of the day a breeze.

But on Sunday, I was just an awkward fat girl in jeans and a sweater, feeling like the new kid on the first day of school.

I walked to the desk, gave my free pass to the attendant, and waited on the next free salesperson to come give me the pitch. In a lovely coincidence, it was Dana, a friend from my former gym! Talk about being put at your ease!

I got the tour (sauna looks fabulous; I am a heat-seeking creature and dearly, dearly love saunas and steam rooms). Dana and I, who have six cats each, showed cell phone pics of our pets and smiled to each other, getting and liking each other.

So Monday I will be back at the gym. Shit and fuc, it has been a long time.

TEDx, unsurprisingly, was a watershed moment in my life. It’s because of TEDx that I ran out of excuses and had to own up to the fact that the life I always dreamed of is the one I wake up to, and the battle against my own ordinariness is well underway, waiting only for me to call the crew of my soul to the decks of my body and make this form I wear more fun to be in.

I have a new friend who dances ballroom. Back in the day, I taught East Coast swing and was learning foxtrot, waltz and cha cha. I took private lessons from a friend who was once a professionally ranked ballroom dancer, and together we could have cleared the floor anywhere.

I never stopped loving dance, but I stopped having time and breath and fitness for it, and just like dating and running and feeling beautiful and wearing clothes I liked and LIVING deeply and well, I put it on the shelf of things I could no longer enjoy, like a sick person puts life there, like a dying person puts life there.

In my 30s, hardly realizing what I was doing or how much I was giving up, I put half my life in the freezer. (The remaining half was a very good half though! My life is such that even just the half is quite satisfying.)

But then I did TEDx. And I had a rush of realization that sometimes what we must choke down, force down and swallow whole, fighting all the way, is that sometimes things go wonderfully. That sometimes the biggest dreams happen, unavoidable as a flower opening when the time is right, and no one is harmed, and everyone is transformed, and afterward your mind is reeling at your own good fortune. And all your excuses for something being not quite as good as it was, they all fail.

Because sometimes the bad thing comes, and it overtakes you, but sometimes the good thing comes, and it too is not to be denied. Sometimes the good thing happens, too.

Lately I have been like a snake choking down an elephant of good fortune. I can barely fit it all in, barely comprehend it all, and yet eat it all I must. Poor me.

I find myself on the verge of graduation, with a transformed life. With the coolest job in town. And the coolest friends in town! And being asked to serve on the boards of the coolest organizations in town (oy). And my life spread out before me like a corn maze on a beautiful fall day, where every choice is right.

I have run out of excuses to hide from life anymore, which is what I had been doing. I am the one who did not go out to lunch with someone once because I liked him too much, and didn’t want to embarrass myself (or him) with the stuttering nerves I get sometimes, as an introvert with rather intense ideas and feelings. Yes, that was me. In retrospect it seems insane, though heaven knows It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, to the person I was then, though her sorry logic just embarrasses me now.

I really don’t want to be her anymore. Scared to dance, scared to live, working so hard for the future that the present is lost in the shuffle. I’m like a woman who gained weight after a pregnancy and clings to the baby-fat excuse 11 years later. My life stopped being bad a long time ago.

This year, this summer, it kept me up at night with how good it was, and how amazing it could be if I took all the lost bits of it out of storage and decided to walk through all the houses of life, instead of hanging out in the library all day trying to convince myself I was having a good time, and had enough, and was OK being in the library all day and all night.

Dear sweet life, I have so much to figure out, but I am coming. Thank you for waiting.

I am coming.

The Worst Question to Ask

While getting my hang-tag for college parking yesterday, I asked if the woman helping me could look up my license tag number, which I had forgotten, and which I needed for the form I was filling out. Stupid, I know, not to have it memorized, but I didn’t. And I didn’t want to have to walk all the way across campus in the sun a second time during a busy week.

“No,” said the woman at the counter. “We just don’t do that.”

And then I did it. The thing so many people hate. The question that’s always taken as an accusation.

“Why?” I asked. “You can’t just look it up in the computer?”

The woman did not appear busy, and in fact seemed to have been having a friendly social conversation with a co-worker when I arrived. I thought I was just being logical, performing the operation [you looking my tag number up] is much less trouble than [me making another special trip out of my way again tomorrow, and also risking another ticket this week with no student-parking hang-tag]. But no dice.

She told me that her office didn’t do that. Ah. The old “because I say so”/”that’s just how we do things” answer, which isn’t an answer at all.

I told her I didn’t understand, that I wanted a reason.

She then became testy, borderline rude, and told me to “just fill it out and bring it back already, OK?” before turning her back on me, disgusted with me and my irritating desire for information, and returning to the conversation she’d just left behind.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that quite possibly this woman is not the rude, lazy imbecile you might think after reading my fairly accurate (IMO) account of our encounter.

People (Americans?) hate being asked why they’re doing something, especially with regard to their job. They get mad. They commonly, in my experience, take “why” as a personal affront, a criticism, an insult from someone who isn’t in their shoes and never will be. In America at least, WHY is a loaded gun.

But so often, all we want is an answer.

Let’s rewrite this encounter.

Version one:

Can you look this up for me?

No, we don’t have time for that.

Hm, I don’t understand. No one else is in line, and your office really doesn’t look that busy.

Well, if we looked that up for you, we’d have to do it for everyone, and sometimes we just don’t have time for it. I’m sorry. Can you bring it back tomorrow?

Version two:

Can you look this up for me?

Sure.

Both options took less time than what actually transpired…


Going to College: If You Knew Then What You Know Now

A dear friend on Facebook asks:

Instead of tv, ice cream and such, let’s ask those things that we really want to know about each other, like:

If you knew then what you know now, what career would you have pursued and studied at a younger age?

She answers herself, saying she would have taken just a year off after college to explore and travel, and then gone to medical school.

But was there ever any way for that to happen?

“If you knew then what you know now.” What an illusion. Nobody gets to be 43 at 17.

I think it’s so much more than “knowing then.” It’s having parents who value education (formal or informal) and guide you through childhood to learning about yourself — and who learned themselves from some source that that’s a good way to raise a child. And not every parent and not every generation has access to this idea.

“Knowing” is also knowing yourself, and becoming able to interpret yourself into the right job. I’ve heard one person say she had trouble finding a job because her perfect career (web designer) didn’t even exist until her twenties.

And people can and do change. The perfect thing to study at 19, even if you have everything going for you (parents who guided you to learning about the world and yourself, money for college, a learning style suited to the paradoxical submission to bureaucracy and tradition college asks of us all while telling us we are to be taught to think for ourselves) might not be the perfect thing at 35. I’m saddened by the self-defeating attitude in this society that says that we must attend college by 25, or long for a lost chance the rest of our lives.

I started college at 34 and attend with people in their 60s and 70s. It was hard, but it’s do-able. Most people, I think, don’t do it because there are so few trailblazers, and because we think of college as a place for the young for no good reason I can think of.

And chance is such a huge factor in anyone’s life. Sometimes, only chance, chaos and dumb luck take us where we need to go. No amount of parental preparing can show us everything. Dumb luck uncovered two of my own best talents later in life.

I’m also bothered by the idea that college and only college is the golden ticket to self-betterment. I found incredible success and self-actualization through formal education, but I don’t recognize university as the only way to increasing capability.

Mentorship, workshops, travel, informal learning, apprenticeship — don’t they count, too? I think you really do get out what you put in.

A friend is in Australia right now attending a festival celebrating indigenous culture. She plans to connect Australian aborigines with Native Americans to heal “historical trauma.” She’s not doing this through any program other than the program of her heart. And she is prepared for a mind-blowing experience that will take her life and career plans to a next level.  Big balls and help from family and community, yes; formal educational help, no.

And must we have only one career? Must we be shot out of a cannon at 19 and stay that course until retirement? Can’t we add layers to ourselves as we age and learn?

And do our jobs define us?

I wish I’d had parents who better understood me, but I’m simply too different from them. I didn’t even have a chance, really, for the kind of choice my friend describes. Quite possibly they didn’t either growing up, or my dad would not be the complaining, dissatisfied man he is now.

I wish I’d discovered nonfiction writing earlier, and discovered ways to love and teach science through writing and communication earlier. I wish I’d uncovered my design and photography skills and hungers before age 39.

But I didn’t, in part because there still is not any one undergraduate major that encompasses me.  I’d have to get at least three undergraduate degrees to cover — formally — all the marketable things I think I am best at.

I am still learning the best I can at 40.

And I feel that things have hardly begun.

Coming Around Again

A few weeks back I started buying books again.

I was at my local used book store, selling off old books for cash. Some that I no longer wanted were only good for credit, and over multiple trips to get cash and rid myself of unwanted books, I found myself with around $30 of credit at Mr. K’s.

As my latest batch of sell-ables was judged for its worth I would wander the shelves.

The science fiction drew me like a fly to honey, the way it always does. Lovely old paperbacks, yellowing pages, scuffed covers and elderly spines. First I found an old Greg Bear book, Blood Music, one of my favorites. I’ve read it, but I wanted to give it to someone. Who I did not and do not know, but it will find a home someday.

Then a Stephen Baxter. I looked for a rare copy of Crystal Express, but as usual, didn’t find it.

I browsed the children’s books and said hello to my favorites, Green Knowe and Summerland.

Then one day on one trip I found myself in the very back of the store, where the dear old friends of my youth waited. Jack Vance. Sheri Tepper. H.P. Lovecraft.  Robert R. McCammon. Michael Moorcock. Gene Wolfe.

Newly and strangely drawn to my old stomping grounds, the mass market paperback fantasy section, I got a Naomi Novik novel, His Majesty’s Dragon, which I described on Twitter as insubstantial but fun: a swift and smart read, four parts Patrick O’Brian and one part Pern. (I still prefer to think of it as an interspecies gay romance.)

I read my dragon book cover to cover, mostly lying in bed. I was reading again. Like a child wobbling around the cul-de-sac on training wheels, I was up and reading.

Books began to call me in the evenings, the way they used to. I was the child who opened my presents on Christmas morning, left them under the tree, and returned IMMEDIATELY to The Hobbit (where I really was at an exciting part).

I remember the day I first asked the librarian if I could check out books from the adult, grown-up section, and was told yes, and looked over to that vast singing field of truth and wonder like an astronaut who’d just been given a ticket to the stars.

As a young woman, the librarians at Pack (my local downtown library, the one with the best selection) knew me by name, and I knew them (Scottie and Sheila). When someone wrote something mean in the margins of a John Crowley book I had loved (Little, Big), I scrawled a defense. (How I hope that penciled conversation is still there in that book. Last time I checked, it was. )

I read on into my thirties, finding fantasy and fiction harder and harder to please me, and the real world taking over as it always does. My tastes changed from Clark Ashton Smith and Tanith Lee to Michael Pollan and Jared Diamond.

It was an evolution. I was becoming.

Or so I thought.

But two weeks ago  I began deserting nightly Netflix fun for the book that awaited me in bed, like a lover. I liked my Naomi Novik dragon book very much. So much that I went back to Mr. K’s later, with nothing to sell, and bought all the mass market fantasy paperbacks my yellow credit slip would pay for.

Another Naomi Novik book. A vampire novel. A Gene Wolfe, a Norman Spinrad. A Jack Vance novel I read 18 years ago, loved, and want to love again in this new life, this new brain, this new body.

And I realized it wasn’t really an evolution at all when I wandered away from these magnificent and strange old friends. It was only me moving away, the same way you move away from your hometown. And sometimes, come back. And know that you can go anywhere, but here is good for now. Here is good.

Last night, finding my vampire novel good but not engaging me at the moment, I got up from bed and walked over to the bookshelf in my room. A little poking around, and there it was.

My favorite book. Bought solely for the purpose of Having after I found it in an unusual but relatively worthless fancy paperback U.K. first edition at the bookstore in Florida where I discovered Joe R. Lansdale’s writing and bought By Bizarre Hands.

I have kept this book like a treasure for years. Nearly all my books are in the basement in boxes waiting for me to afford proper storage. Not this one.

It was yellowing, with a sticky web of dust I had to rub away. At over 700 pages, it’s a gorgeous monster. A veritable brick of a novel. I put the vampire novel aside.

I’ll finish it. But I know the book I want to read next.

The Man Who Was Neat By Nature

A man of few needs with a straightforward life, neatness came easy to him. So he decided, as so many do, that he represented a kind of perfection, and those who weren’t like him were deficient somehow, and in need of correction and judgment.

When Does Fall Start?

(Photo by the magnificent Asheville photographer, Zen Sutherland)

As a modern-day American I’ve grown up thinking autumn starts in late September. But as someone who loves the change of the seasons and relishes their changing signs, I’ve noticed that by the time we officially start a season, it’s well underway. Think about it — Christmas starts only days into wintertime. It’s practically an autumn holiday.

We won’t fire the starting gun for fall for nearly another two months, but here in WNC green leaves have turned yellow and pink (take a look outside), the fruits of harvest are here, spiders are spinning their webs, days are getting shorter, and on unseasonably cool days when my eyes catch a turned leaf or a silvery spiderweb, I feel it — a pang, a rush, a ghost-presence of fall. For a moment, fall is all here. Halloween, woodsmoke, those celestial blue skies! Pumpkin carving, corn maze. Cool golden days and bonfires. Nights of chill, mornings of fog, green mountains turning red and rust under a  faltering sun.

Summer has a hold on the body, but o Autumn, you have a hold on the heart.

When I finally read on astronomer Phil Plait’s website that other societies celebrate the arrival of fall on August 1 (and winter in September, spring in February), I felt strangely vindicated. Someone else had noticed that there was a different way to lay out the seasons, and start them when they started to appear, when they were new, not when they were in full effect.

So when does fall start? Take your pick. Late September, or today.

As I like to say at this time of the year: autumn is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.