The Sound of a Story (2020-11-07ish)

You see that star? It wasn’t always a star. In the days before we left the trees, it was a story.

I’ll try to tell you in a way you can understand.

Imagine being in a very tall building, and you wake up in the middle of the night, and you’re hungry. Now take away everything that you know, except for the hunger that is just enough to keep you awake, and the darkness of night.

The story takes us many stories in the air … but before stories were measured and constructed the way they are today, with contracts and spreadsheets and profit margins ….

Many stories in the air, in the tip-top of the tree canopy of a world dense with life and possibility and mystery, a young ape yearned for their mother’s milk. Like you, the ape was old enough that they no longer suckled, and young enough that they knew the comfort of a mother on a moonless night.

As they sat there hungry for something, there was a sound they hadn’t heard before. Like you, the ape was old enough to know many sounds of the world, and young enough to be afraid of the unknown. The sound, or maybe their age—just on the cusp of the age of knowing that there would always be unknowns and that the unknowns were worth paying attention to—or maybe their hunger, made them listen closely.

The sound was beyond them.

The night was relatively still.

The sound sounded.

With the branches below and the darkness about, the tide was in, or maybe out, and there was no sun nor moon to witness the scene, just our young ape, who closed their eyes, as you might when the world gets overwhelming, and they listened.

It wasn’t the sound of their stomach or their heart. It was neither predator nor prey that they knew, neither friend nor foe that they’d met before. It wasn’t the leaves nor the waves nor an iteration of the elements that they could recognize. It was deep, yet held aloft on the night air without a breeze, without the breath of a living creature as far as they could hear or see or tell. It was a sound that was there for the listening to.

They opened their eyes so you could see them gazing into the void of space and time, where they pointed as if to say, ‘The sound was a story to sate hunger, and the story became a star, that star, right there.’

Broken: Norman’s Reflection as Seen on the TV on the Porch Across the Street (2020-11-03ish)

Norman’s credo was, “The only thing we shouldn’t tolerate is intolerance.” It seemed right to him, although he recognized it was problematic to say that intolerance was intolerable, but he thought we were cacpable of holding some complexity like that, and also like the fact that he was both a liberal progressive and a church-going man, which his acquaintances on both sides of all contemporary conflicts liked to, as some of them said, give him shit about.  The most politically conservative church-goers in his social circle would often imply that church-goers had a Christian imperative to vote in particular ways that Norman disagreed with, while on the other side of the spetrum, the most politically liberal in his circle were the most anti-church, and they would often imply that church-goers were morally bankrupt and politically suspect (“All church-goers?” he wanted to ask them). He was a church-goer because he liked church. Period. Full stop. He shouldn’t have to defend, he felt, his habits and preferences and affiliations. He loved Jesus, and he’d love you, too, if you’d let him. Live and let live. “The only thing we shouldn’t tolerate is intolerance.”

But in time, in this time, anyway, his credo, which he thought nice and balanced, and which he thought should place him right in the middle of things, politically and socially, poised to be friend to all, instead Norman’s centrist credo isolated him. He heard the hate, and he felt the fear, from those to his left and those to his right … misundertandings, mostly … but that was only part of it, he had been reluctant to admit: there was also maliciousness, and when Norman saw too much of that he finally started to break. That’s when he started to religiously watch the stuffed bear on the TV on his neighbor’s porch across the street, perhas as if the bear were a real bear, or perhaps as if there was no difference.

It was hard to tell, these days, what was real and what wasn’t, and it was another matter altogether to figure out what mattered. He had reason to doubt it all: the news, which had been a national uniter in eras past, was now a fractured and fracturing force, a capitalist cabal of big companiees profiting from paranoia until our bubbles became walled enclaves and we bought whatever news was sold to us at whatever price; and the so-called “good news,” the gospel of his church, he had reason to doubt, as well: there were only so many times that he could hear scripture used to justify inequality before he looked at his religious institution with less inspiration and more incredulity. A world of lies was laid bare.

And the bear? It sat on the TV, unmoving, impassive. And the question Norman asked himself as he stared through his front window and across the street was whether that bear was a good model to him in these trying times, or not.  In his lifetime, Norman had tried prayer and prophets, profits and non-profits, poetry and prose, politics and pundits, professors and pedagogy, even psychologists with their silent Ps, and none of it brought peace, so now he was trying the bear.

It remained there, on the TV, all winter for him to watch, and in the spring it was still there, but by then Norman was barely there—a pair of eyes in sunken sockets, a pair of cold hands hanging limply at the end of long arms, a pair of bare feet that had forgotten warm comfort—everything had become more bare for Norman, who had just enough sense left to wonder, “What is that resilient bear stuffed with?”

Starla’s Untold Story (2020-11-02)

We know the story of the man in the moon—

Jebediah Smith, grandson of the famous Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. Jebediah was sent on his Mormon mission to the moon, and, in the first act of rebellion of his life, he decided to stay. He hadn’t converted a single person on his mission, but he had gained a certain self-assuredness. His religious faith increased, sure, as did his devotion to his God, but whereas before he attributed everything to his God, after his mission to the moon he realized that he was worthy of respect, too, as an independent person … albeit within his omnipotent and omniscient and omnipresent God’s universe. Jebediah admitted that cosmology and faith and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle were complex concepts, and, likewise, he believed in the complexity that his God controlled everything and also that he, Jebediah Smith, had free choice. And in a radical declaration of free choice he decided to stay—

Yes, we know the story of the man in the moon, but what about the woman? Classic patriarchal storytelling, and reporting, and history (you see? why not herstory?) to neglect the story of the woman in the moon, and that’s where the real drama is, not in the tale of Jebediah, traditional white male who uses his privilege to declare independence, meanwhile living at the taxpayers’ expense—typical. No, the real story is herstory, a mystery: Where did she come from? How did she get there? Was she there all along? When Jebediah looked up from a day-and-a-half-long video-game binge, there she was, Starla, naked and shameless and owner of her own identity independent of some man’s narrative. But all we have are his self-obsessed reports (“her presence engorges my manhood as if I’m the devil’s dog”), his queries (“is she God’s gift to me? did I invent her? to what purpose should I use her?”), and our guesses about who the woman in the moon is.

Teeth (2020-11-02)

No one knew why he kept 27 loose crocodile teeth in his left front pocket at all times.

On Election Day 2020 he woke up feeling surprisingly elated. Care-free. The election of his lifetime, so far, was at hand on this day. With the too-close potentials of overt violence from an authoritarian regime in training, or revolution, or civil war, a coup … who knows … and that utter unknowability is perhaps what allowed him to feel so free on a day of historical import. “Good,” he thought, “if I can feel calm on the cusp of calamity,” and he liked the alliteration of it, and he realized he was not a revolutionary.

No one knew why he kept 27 loose crocodile teeth in his left front pocket at all times.

As Seen on TV (2020-11-02)

From across the street, he watched the bear on the TV. The bear wasn’t moving. The TV wasn’t moving, either—it hadn’t moved, he was quite sure, in months. One wouldn’t normally expect a TV to move much, but this one was outside, unplugged, on his neighbor’s porch, and he had assumed when he first saw it that it was in the process of being moved—to a thrift store, perhaps, or to the electronics recycling site, or maybe to a trash pile; but it didn’t move. It became a fixture on the porch, the star of a tableaux around which orbited an array of domestic detritus: a box of Christmas decorations, it looked like, that escaped the gravitational pull of the TV when they were taken somewhere else,  like the old garden tools that were there temporarily, and the packages that sometimes arrived from UPS or Fed-Ex, seen on the TV one day and gone the next.

“What’s on the TV today” she asked.

“A bear.”

“A bear!?”

“A stuffed bear.”

And so it went, day by day and week by week. They never knew what would be on the TV, and for how long.

The bear captivated him in a way he didn’t understand. It was more engaging than Superman, which had been on the TV last week, and which he had to get out his binoculars to identify, an action figurine with articulated limbs that someone had propped on top of the TV and arranged in a heroic pose; he was bored by that after a day, but he was somehow addicted to watching the bear, as if he was waiting for some kind of action, or as if he was learning something from the bear—how to be still? how to be patient? how to be satisfied? how to abandon expectations…? He wasn’t sure, but he felt confident that he could learn something from watching what was on the TV.

Twilight (2020-11-01)

English muffins tasted better if you called them “crumpets,” and if you put a fat pat of butter on each half right when it came out of the toaster so that the butter melted in deep, and if you spooned and spread honey on while there was still heat, and if you topped each half with a slice of sharp cheddar cheese, and, finally, if you called it “first breakfast” and allowed yourself to eat it while you stood at the kitchen counter deciding what to have for second breakfast, which is what Twilight was doing right now.

As far as she knew—although one never knows—this was not the twilight of Twilight’s life, but that had never caused her any kind of cognitive dissonance before, or, to her knowledge, any lack of self-awareness. And what if she had known that it was the twilight of her life, right now, that this was her first breakfast of the day and the last breakfast of her life? When Twilight was in her twilight moments, besides thinking of regrets and bucket lists and a memory highlight reel and final loving messages she might share had she known of the darkening of her days—rather than the thought that was in her head: “what comes next, the oatmeal or the egg?”—would she have felt any kind of cosmic connection of nomenclatural numinosity?  As Twilight neurologically experienced her twilight, would she feel a linguistic link between life and the language that labels our lives, recognizing that this—Twilight’s twilight—is who she was, or is, or was, before darkness descended completely and snuffed her synapses so that no thoughts could consider the moment Twilight might know herself?

Nora’s Charisma (2020-10-31)

Nora brought her plants inside from mid-fall to mid-spring, for their survival and for hers. The fig anchored the collection—her charisma of plants. There was a lemon and a lime, who acted like little sentries, but not on opposite sides or even in symmetrical array, because they were too gossipy for that, instead resting arms on each other and chitchatting throughout the cold months the way citrus do.  Spider plants dangled above the charisma, shooting off babies even in the low light of winter.  And this kind of life, this kind of camaraderie, kept Nora smiling as her corner of the world cycled through its season of cold and dark. Some days she thought she wouldn’t bother getting out of bed except for the pleasure of tending her green living plants, picking the spider mites from them, occasionally misting them, in general letting them rest rather than strive so much the way plants tend to do in their energetic rush to grow and green over the world.  In the cold dark months, Nora and her plants had permission to be pampered.  She sang to them—snippets of Broadway hits she woke up singing some sunny mornings, or opera arias that more often accompanied dark days, but also hymns that were historically lodged in her brain, and Dolly Parton songs she knew by heart.  But the songs, Nora must have known, were not really for the plants, but for herself.  It was all for herself, the plant care, but what’s the difference in the end?  We’re all one, and plant care is self-care.

our village (69) — Non-Neighbors Part II

our village (69)

chapter 3, story #11

 

NON-NEIGHBORS PART II

 

Did I ever tell you the second part of the story of the two non-neighbors? The neighborly neighbor tried again—because he was neighborly, he thought, “But he is my neighbor, whether either of us likes it or not, he can’t argue with the fact that he is my neighbor,” to which plea the non-neighbor shut the door and turned up the music. And neighborly neighbor still doesn’t know what to do. He is again defeated by the neighbor who doesn’t want a neighbor.

our village (68) — Tracking

our village (68)

chapter 3, story #10

 

TRACKING

 

Did I ever tell you the story of Maxwell following the footprints? The footprints in the snow told the whole story, better than I can tell it. He was following them across the bridge, cat prints, hadn’t noticed where they’d started, just realized he was daydreaming in the snow and following cat prints across the bridge. They sauntered along the bridge planks, caressing the pickets on the more stable side of the bridge, stopping here to sniff and crouch—Maxwell could see four prints nestled together, ready for the pounce—and shuffling forward, but no pounce, just a hop to the other side of the bridge before loping back to the favored, more stable side, and continuing to the end of the bridge. And here’s where Maxwell made a deliberate choice to follow the prints. It was something like a firm commitment in his mind, something I draw attention to because it was unusual for Maxwell. Normally he would go with the flow, but he felt a strong pull tonight to follow these tracks. So he did. That was the flow, I guess, and he wasn’t deviating from it.

 

At the end of the bridge the tracks turned down the embankment toward the water. It wasn’t the most common turn for cats, but it was perfectly reasonable, whether the cat was going for a drink, for hunting, or for the mere pleasure of being on the lake shore in winter, a serene and relaxing place, and cats have a reputation for knowing how to relax, right? So, for whatever reason, the cat had turned, and for whatever reason, Maxwell also turned, to follow the cat prints through the snow.

 

The prints trotted down to the shore, and there, at what Maxwell assumed was the edge of the lake—although everything had a wonderfully consistent blanket of snow over it, and a stranger wouldn’t know lake edge from lake middle except there weren’t any trees where the lake was—there, Maxwell could see the imprint of a seated cat—Maxwell was really good at tracking, y’see?—but, to his astonishment, that was the last track that Maxwell could see anywhere in the vicinity.

 

He knew he wasn’t mis-reading a track (he knew he was a good tracker, Maxwell), but he supposed maybe he might be missing a track. But where? He might have just stood there and been dumbfounded, amazed at the mysteries of the world, and eventually turned around and gone back home. But he had made this commitment to follow the tracks, y’see, so that’s what he had to do.

 

But how? Where did the tracks go? There was no sign of any other creature having been out there—no predator on the wing that would have left wingprints, a scuffle, blood and fur and feathers; no mammalian predator, two-legged or four-legged, had left any print. There was the one set of tracks in—now two, if you included Maxwell’s—and the no sets of tracks out. And they were fresh tracks. And the snow was fresh and had stopped falling and was now showing all tracks perfectly, species and size, direction and mass and speed and behavior, a story in every set of prints. And the stories usually went on to some end he could understand: an animal home; a live encounter; a bored tracker; or a change to untrackability—well, that usually happened for a reason that Maxwell could identify: you can’t track something that walks down an asphalt road, or something that flies off, or dives into the water. But there was no sign here. And no possibility that he could imagine at this frozen lake edge.

 

So he imagined more.

 

He imagined that he heard a bird calling, a Pileated woodpecker with its loud raucous call addressing him, Maxwell, calling him away from the lake and into the woods. He imagined it was twilight, moonlight, and the Pileated is going to roost for the night, but it makes one last call to Maxwell: “Follow me. Look at the prints over here.”

 

So Maxwell steps into the woods where the Pileated calls, and he sees by the light of the moon a beautiful imprint of an owl in the snow—must be a Barred owl at that size in these woods—the wingprints clean in the snow, right in front of him, one set of wingprints and then nothing, again.

 

Maxwell tries to imagine what could have happened here with such a perfectly clean set of wingprints in the snow, one clean set and nothing else visible nearby.

 

Maxwell imagined more.

 

He heard the Barred owl call from deeper in the woods, and he followed the call, which was, in a way, the prints he’d been following along, now transformed into an audible imprint. Through the winter forest and into his ear and brain, or in his brain as a winter forest imagined, with a Barred owl calling to him, it didn’t matter.

 

He followed the prints from animal to animal, the creatures of the lake village speaking to him, telling him stories.

 

Like this one: The Tale of the Missing Cat. It goes like this:

 

Samuel the Cat—

 

it was the name he gave himself, because he’d always liked that human name “Samuel,” with its combination of soft sounds and inuendo of strong character, and “the Cat” because, frankly, he was proud of his feline qualities, and he didn’t want to be confused with, for example, some human; he was Samuel the Cat, and he—

 

was enjoying the freedom that contemporary human culture granted his species: the freedom to be wild and tame; inside and outside; loved while occasionally unloveable. So he was out for a stroll in the snow; he wanted to be back by the people’s fireside as the sun set. It was perfect out here. That’s what Samuel the Cat thought, anyway, as he was sitting by the edge of the lake in the snow, the winter sun on its low slant to the horizon.

 

Samuel the Cat was essentially riffing on how beautiful the world is, when he was silently lifted off his haunches by a pterodactyl.

our village (67) — Who Is Watching Us?

our village (67)

chapter 3, story #9

 

WHO IS WATCHING US?

 

I got to thinkin’ the other day, ’bout my hundreds of stories about Jerry Randy, ’bout how maybe I tell the same ones over and over, ’bout how maybe I should try to tell the stories that I can’t make sense out of, rather than the stories I been tellin’ and re-tellin’. There’s some stories from our village that don’t make much sense. Jerry Randy’s involved in a few of them. Like I said, you ought to know, that’s why I’m tellin’ ya’. I ain’t gettin’ any younger, and I don’t know who else in the village tells these stories, so if I don’t tell …. So listen.

 

Imagine a dark night in the village, a hot and humid summer night, where you might as well be in or out, awake or asleep, standing or walking slowly or lying in a hammock—it don’t matter, ‘cuz it’s a night when the world is slow and nothing matters; the frogs sound slow; old Uncle Us is on a late-night walk-about—I know it’s hard to imagine, hardy-har-har, but it’s not too infrequent to have me out ‘n’ about, so imagine it: I’m walking nice and slow, no one else is outside, least I don’t see or hear a sign of nobody … until I look up and see Ms. Marquetta Mason’s silhouette in her window, and everything’s so still it’s like I know what’s going to happen before it does: Jerry Randy opens the front door of the Lukas shack and steps out into the night, and he don’t see me, but I see him lookin’ up at Ms. Marquetta in the window like I’d been doing, so I see we’ve got a little looking chain going on, with me lookin’ at Jerry Randy lookin’ at Ms. Marquetta, and then I think: there’s got to be someone lookin’ at me, and I look around to try to see, nothing, and when I look back Jerry Randy is gone, Ms. Marquetta’s light’s out, the night is hot and humid, the world is slow; nothing matters; the frogs sound slow ….