Monday, March 29, 2010

The Communion of Caffeine

Essay in Embryo #4

I grew up watching my father suck down Folgers and Maxwell House by the pot-ful. I knew he'd stop at Dunkin' Donuts--going out of his way--before work, and I knew that one of the first things he did when he got to work was tear a crinkly pouch of industrial coffee powder and brew a carafe for the rest of the office and auto garage workers, yes, but still, for himself. I knew he wasn't alone. The traffic outside our almost miniature Dunks was always heaviest before 8am, and right before 1pm, the cars snaking their way around the back drive-thru like a chain of rollercoaster cars that are slowly chugging up, up, but never arriving.

In the churches I grew up under, communion was always carried out with a unique and different introduction, always ending with Christ's words to "eat/drink this in remembrance of me." As a result, I don't remember anything they ever said.

My dad once gave me a sip, and I felt as if I had just lapped a puddle gathered in a sandbox. "It gets me through the day," he said. Right then, at age 12, I vowed to never give myself to the drink, especially if it didn't even taste good.

When I left for college, I, for all intents and purposes, stopped going to church. It started as 'a break' from the unwavering habit of my childhood, but eventually I figured out it was because of how nervous it made me.

At this point, I've gone from liking coffee only if it tasted like melted mocha chip ice cream all the way to espresso snobbery, single-estate and fairly traded. And I've lived up to my vow--I don't drink it in the morning (it turns my just-awoken stomach into a series of spinning concentric circles), and if I do drink it, it's as an afternoon 'treat.'

They often warned us not to take communion if 'our hearts weren't right' (an abstraction stemming from Luke's words in 1 Corinthians 11:29: anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself). I was scared my heart was never right, and whew, that would be a lot of ingested judgment.

The thing is, I still don't really like it. And, what's more, I've duped myself. While I don't start with coffee, I do start with a full pot of English tea. Never the American dust that Lipton and others sell. I go for bags that blacken the water like someone's turned out the light. And my coffee 'treat' turns out to be almost every afternoon Monday-Friday.

N and I have tried a number of churches, ranging from high liturgical to off-the-rafters charismatic. But it just reminds me of the fact that every church I was a part of as a kid split, severing the church's members like a mass divorce. In our attempts to freshen up Communion, we cut ourselves in half.

But I've turned the making of both beverages into holy and restorative rituals. I pour just boiled water into the tea pot, 'shocking it,' as the double-turned phrase goes, dump that into my mug to warm it, then pour the water over the tea bag, spinning the pot 360 degrees as the water flows in. When I dump the water out of the mug, I use the warmed porcelain to massage my right forearm, to loosen things up before writing/grading. My coffee ritual is similar. I just usually end up dumping 85% of the coffee out. This doesn't stop me from making it, however. On afternoons where I need a distraction, and there's no emails (never any emails), I make coffee so I can dump it out.

When people ask what church I belong to, I say, "still looking," the words like tainted water that I keep drinking, then spitting back into the cup, hoping that one of these times it will turn itself into wine.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Drafting, pt. 4

Time: 2:53
Music: "Sun Drugs" | Stars of the Lid
Mood: fractured

As is typical of a mid-semester week, I haven't had time to work on my book* other than think about it when I lie down at night, hoping that sleep will come before any reminders about what I didn't do that day.

Distraction #1: N gets home. I haven't started cooking lunch yet. I get up to do so. While's she's in the shower and the olive oil is heating up, I sneak back to the computer and:

It seems that perhaps the biggest difficulty in drafting this book is the pebbles of voices that have crumbled and rolled since I started. Having started the actual writing two years ago (and the thinking four years ago, or, maybe, a lot longer), each time I sit and do a significant bout of writing, it seems my voice has changed in some significant way (one hopes, for the better).

Distraction #2: The sizzle of the oil replaces the splash of the shower as N turns the knob. I get up and drop the onions and carrots in, thinking that I should've waited on the carrots, but my time keeps shrinking.

At this point, I see the book as having changed the pitch and depth of its voice four major times, usually some sort of semester-to-semester break involved. However, there are weeks, like this one, where teaching takes up so much time that it seems the voice I started last Friday is already miles, worlds away.

Distraction #3: I can hear N hanging up her towel, the sound of the vegetables screaming louder and louder and until, ok, ok, I'll be right there.

In one sense, the shifting of voice is good news: it means that I'm not content with how things went the previous time, so I should take some things out, add a few more, see how they feel, taste together. I wonder what I'm losing/gaining, hoping that I'm divining the right measurements.

Distraction #4: Lunch is on the table--a mish-mash of veggies, cheese and tofu we call, appropriately, a 'scramble.' N says, "Can I start eating?" and I say "mhmm" while I type out what will have to be the end of this. The distraction getting the final word.
*metablog moment: the same reason I haven't had time to post anything this week.

Monday, March 22, 2010

All My People

Essay in Embryo #3

Q: Who is your audience?

A: I don't know--their faces are blurry at the moment.

If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear. - Mark 4:23

Q: Is your book for a Christian audience, or...something else not Christian?
A: I don't think that's fair.

Q: Don't get mad! Who do you think I am?!

"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" - Mark 8:29

Q: Why do you use Bible verses if you're not just aiming at Christians? It makes me feel guilty for not understanding what you mean!

A: Then, I think you get it.

Q: Get what?
A: The fact that guilt is a fence that keeps an audience hemmed, quiet.

Q: And calm?
A: Never calm.

Q: So, what does an audience without a voice look like?
A: Sleepers. Sleep-talkers. Sleep-walkers. Sleep-stalkers. Stalking sleep, as if it was something you can't catch, something that evades you at every turn by leaving pamphlets on death and birth, that death is the miracle, not birth, that birth means you can't sleep, because of the voices, because of the Voices, the Voice, your voice, the vices, your vices, the vice of not being able to close your eyes, but of simultaneously being blind, because what is the difference between the dark silence of eyes-open and the dark silence of eyes-shut?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

b vs. B

As of this past Friday, I have officially heard from all three of my faculty thesis committee members, per the first full draft of my book. Each reader was drastically different--one was concise and extensive, one was clipped and topical, and one was harebrained and convoluted. They all have their strengths, as anyone who has had anything submitted for approval, from a sestina to a spread sheet, knows.

It was the latter of the three that I have found the most helpful, as in, the one that made me want to dig in, rather than be buried alive by the prospect of a second revision. The reason for this is that it engaged with the ideas of the book, rather than of the structure/voice/audience formulaic commentary that is typical in art programs at any level. The formulaic stuff is worth its weight, for sure, but the difference between this kind of commentary, and feedback is just what the latter word suggests: someone was fed, and now is feeding you.

So, this sounds like a regurgitating pigeon. I guess I'm okay with that.

Quote from Harebrain:*
"...these [small, mundane] moments bring bryan [with a little b] to life, and the more you come to life as just bryan, the more we are interested in Bryan the seeker. Sort of like if this was a novel about Paul, we’d want more than ½ about Saul the tax collector. I think that’s what we fiction writers do mostly: we write about Saul. We’re interested in Saul more than Paul, although we live to know about the Paul buried in Saul early on, and how that Paul gets released. So, again, where there were moments of confused bryan-ness, I was into that."
Despite the fact that Harebrain is a fiction prof, and is responding in that vein, the whole lowercase/uppercase point is really helpful. Even though I'm writing about my life, I have to turn myself into a character, a type, even a multidimensional symbol. This is what separates it from writing a journal.**

The other plus about this kind of feedback is that it is a bit unhinged. Meaning, it chased after meaning. The response got messy because Harebrain dove right in, and gasp let it swirl into Harebrain's own person and history. Basically, Harebrain was okay with being harebrain as well as Harebrain. And i/I like that.

*meaning, one snippet from 7-page, single-space ecstatic mental nosedive.
**metablog moment!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Drafting, pt. 3.5

As a way to show the other spectrum of writer's block, here's a snippet of what came out of yesterday's daddy issues:

When my mother pulls our rumbling white Bronco up to the garage, my sister gets out without being asked and wrenches the door upward, its jaws squeaking and cracking as it prepares to swallow the chalky white pill. For the last time, my father gets out of a car and climbs the set of stairs leading up to our lemon yellow house, my mother guiding him on one side, a rolling intravenous stand on the other. She peels the screen door open like baleen, holding it open with her hip as she unlocks the front door, letting it lap all of us in. He waits as my mother strips the cushions off the woolen, brown couch in the living room and rips out the tongue of spring and mattress that is coiled inside. When the sheets are taut and pillows propped, she guides him over and lays him down, checking the connections and levels on the I-V stand, its tubes like veins escaping the rot that is growing in the middle of his body. She is a registered nurse and so she is quick, thorough, letting habit hide the fact that she’s placing her husband on his deathbed.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Drafting, pt. 3

Time: 11:55 a.m.
Music: "Fourteen Drawings" | Helios
Mood: heartburned

I'm having daddy issues.

The first thing I say when someone asks me what my book is about is, "what it was like growing up in a nondenominational Christian home, school, and church." It's become a tagline, and I can see myself using it for proposal after proposal. The thing I don't say, unless I've had more than three beers, is that it's about how my father's death (when I was four) has always informed how I view the concept of eternity and faith. Ending vs. Never Ending.

I avoided the topic for a year and a half, not because I felt it was too personal or raw, but because I was afraid of becoming a cliche memoirist--how some single great tragedy has informed every detail since.

I've 'fessed up at this point. The prologue and first chapter are almost solely devoted to him, and it makes its way into most successive chapters. But right now, I'm dead stuck, or stuck on death.

I'm trying to revise the newest chapter, "The Shape of a Ghost" (tent.) and can't seem to move far. In an hour, I have one new paragraph, and most of it is crossed out. What I am trying to explore is how the memories* of my father are voiceless, static. I have no recollection of anything he said, and in general, it feels like I'm circling the images as if I were a ghost, waiting for him as he slowly turns into one. In his last month, his deathbed was the pullout couch in the living room. In a sense, he became an object, a piece of furniture--having a defined shape, but no voice. Inanimate, but eternally fixed in his spot.

The night he died, I wasn't even in the house--the house that had become him. So, even his death becomes a ghost in my head; an empty shape that I keep trying to fill. But how do you write 12 pages about a scene that has no movement, no voices? And further, how do you quiet the stuttering voice in your head that says the death story has to be small-yet-epic, stirring, but not a head-on collision in central square of weepytown? Basically, make it about death without seeming that you're always talking about death.

*without ever using the word 'memories' since, duh, it's a memoir.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Waiting is a Ghost

Essay in Embryo #2

What does a sound bring?

A train belches its horn in the distance--sometimes it stutters like a jazz trumpet, and other times it's an elongated haunting breath. During the latter, N says, "It sounds like they're trying to warn someone."

The wind-stuffed shifting of air that breezes through my apartment as a car goes by, in one ear, out the other, always makes me get up and run to the window. Many cars slow down when they reach my apartment. Sometimes it is N or a neighbor returning home. Most of the time it is not. The sluggish cars always do the same thing: hug the right side of the one-way street as if avoiding an invisible accident, then proceed slowly, one eye on the road, the other on the river further to the right. "What are you waiting for," I think, oftentimes out loud.

What am I waiting for? I check email--all three addresses--almost as often as I blink, the understanding being that one of these times, the big news will arrive, the unflappable validation that I'm living correctly, and here's the means to continue doing what you love, and yes, your existence is progressing the existence of others!

Each time that specific email does not show up in bold, I wince a little, as if it was a complete surprise I didn't win the Life Lottery again, and I start trying to fill my time so that I can check again in ten minutes.

But waiting is the ghost of a verb--the ing suffix suggesting there's movement when in fact it's an endless circling of piles of tiny breaking hearts. It's a myth that life is just a waiting game; that there is a natural narrative arc to our span, and we've all got a crescendo in us, even if it ends as a tragedy or a denoument. But even if that was true--that our lives were as cleanly marked as the human invention of narrative--then waiting would be a vehicle carrying us away from that story, and we'd keep leaning forward towards the driver, asking, how long, how long, please say not long now, just you wait.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Drafting, pt. 2

Time: 12:06
Music: "Odessa" | Caribou
Mood: lunchy

Because it is apparently impossible for me to write/tell anything in chronological order, coming up with a structure for WS has been one of the biggest challenges with the dang thing. The best idea I've come up with is to break the manuscript into 3 parts, each with a guiding, thematic word before each new chapter. In the first draft, the parts went as follows:

Part 1: The Static of the Fathers | Theme word: Static
Part 2: A Swirling of Night & Light | Theme word: Swirls
Part 3: A Temple and/or A Tomb | Theme word: A rotation of Temple and Tomb

The most current change regards part two, which is currently:
Part 2: Night/Light | Theme word: A rotation of Night and Light

So, the point is that at the end of each chapter (which have their own unique time-line, structure, and themes) the reader will be met with a blurb about the theme word and how it connects to the next chapter. Visually, they look the same, so it should build some sense of familiarity. Clearly, the more I describe it, the less it makes sense. The fear? I really like it, and don't plan on throwing it away any time soon.

The newest blurb is a rewrite for
Thief in the Night, the first chapter in Part 2, and goes like this:


is described as descending—like a curtain, a mouth closing, a quilt pulled up over eyes that won’t close. But you are told, heaven is above, hell is below, and there you are in the middle of it all, swearing that as day dies out, the ground seems hot under your heels, and if you could just be good enough to keep it from ascending, from coming up in conversation, in dreams. As your pillowed eyes look for sleep, the darkness thickens, arises, because it only comes out at night. Descending, ascending—it doesn’t matter where it comes from, only that the last letters always spell out ending.]

Monday, March 15, 2010

Feasting on Light

Essay in Embryo #1

A ladybug flits wildly in the milky glass under our kitchen light, amongst the dried, dead husks of its brethren and other insects. It won't stop until it's dead. It is after the light; the full-on, inebriating white light in front of it.

God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. - 1 John 1:5b

Don't go towards the light, the movie says as the pace of the cardiograms stutter, meaning, Don't die yet.

[T]he night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. - Psalm 139:12b

The text box in which I type is engulfed in 24 inches of white back-lighting. I'll be off the computer soon, I say to N. An hour later, my eyes hurt, and she's still waiting.

Drafting, pt. 1

Let's* call this first in a series on small updates about the book.

Time: 2:42 p.m., EST
Music: "Our Breaths in Winter" | Caspian
Mood: a tenseness in the chest like a shaking fist

It is technically spring break, and anyone who's a teacher knows this is definitely a student holiday. And even they should be working, but they still retain that under-the-umbrella mindset that says work-shirking only results in a slight hit to the GPA. Being that I am in academic purgatory--a grad student and teacher--I'm having difficulty with the boundaries of work vs. art vs. free time. N, my wife, took the day off in order to enjoy part of my break with me. But I'm hardly enjoying it. I have not opened my book draft yet today, and have only graded one of twenty student essays that should really be all finished by post-break.

Still in pajamas, I turn to writing an update about the draft, instead of updating the draft.
Basically, I continue to perpetuate the self-inflicted myth of community implied by the contracted let's.**

* - Again, that contraction assumes I'm not alone in this thing, which, according to my view counter, is not accurate. So, let's let go of letting this be important.

** - I would be lying if I said I didn't contemplate ending this let's exploration with the maudlin statement: what's missing is u.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Meta Guy

from C, a friend: "Is asking you to write about faith the same as asking Bill Bryson to write me a guide to my next vacation destination? Is it the same as hooking up with a girl who works as a prostitute? Is this philosophical question really me committing the offense that I am writing about?"

While it is absolutely ridiculous and endearing that C feels a stab of conscience over the idea that he needs to pay me to thoughtfully respond to his emails, it brings up a lot of layered questions about the state of writing. Further, as I continue to doubt that my decision to use 'blog' as a verb was a worthwhile endeavor, I can't help but see his question as a bit metablogical.

Metablog Moment #1: I must, at some level, believe that my writing deserves to be read and compensated, otherwise I wouldn't have quieted that self-doubting voice long enough to hit the 'Create Blog' link.

What makes writing that appears between a cover that's stamped with letters that spell out things like 'Norton,' 'Penguin,' and 'Graywolf' more fiscally deserving than other writing that seeks to be art? The obvious answer is the years of experience and networking/luck that lies behind that printed outcome, but it also exposes the quirky financial standards of art.

Visual art seems to remain the form that has the potential for the biggest earning for a singular piece. And while there are countless counterarguments (so few artists sell enough to live, the ratio of paid bad artists to paid good artists is ludicrous, etc.) I think it has something to do with its history. Moby Dick, War & Peace, and even Realms of the Unreal may be megatomes, but writers still have no equivalent to the Sistine Chapel. Words are used for everything from commerce to art, so it doesn't have the immediate reaction that visual art does

Metablog Moment #2: this blog would be heck of a lot more interesting with something more visual, and with much shorter entries.

Also, the use of fickle materials like gold leaf and found shrapnel induce a sense of awe in the viewer a lot faster than a reader realizes the almost impossible complexity in the seemingly simple lines of an early Harold Pinter script. Even if you don't like found art sculptures (and generally, I could care less for the ones I've seen), you can't help but grasp the level of difficulty in bending steel.

Of course, the answer to all of this should be: if it's your art and you believe in it, then who says you need money to validate it? That's fine, especially if your Emily Dickinson or J.D. Salinger* . But, at this point, I've been paid far more money for filing results of urine tests at a temp job than my writing.

Metablog Moment #3: this could all change if this ever gets a few of those breakdancing housewives on this side of the screen, saying that now is a great time for refinancing a mortgage.

*though, I'd argue that of course Salinger cared about money, in its role as a symbol of success, and that his decision to not have his work published until he was dead seems awfully presumptuous. I love Franny & Zooey, but is there any bigger act of artistic hubris than to say, "You think I'm smart now? Just wait 'til I'm dead!

Saturday, March 13, 2010


It's an odd feeling to listen to an anti-church rant and feel a holy pang of hope in the words of the so-called atheist.

Stephen Fry vs. Catholicism:

I often find comfort in the dissenting voice, while at the same time, claiming a faith that heralds itself as a hopeful voice. But the churches I've attended (and I claim allegiance to none, and haven't for a few years now) seem to forget the ending to Psalm 88: only darkness remains. These churches also always seemed to have a merch table, with devotionals, baked goods, etc. for sale, suggesting they also forgot that Christ turned these tables over when he first visited the Temple in Jerusalem.

So: is a Bible-based faith not actually about a set of moral rules, but about daily self-destruction? Of turning over one's tables to keep the body from becoming a den of thieves?

I kinda hope so.

...rise from the dead

the essay is alive - virginia woolf
What if every moment had an essay, every detail its own lyric narrative?

What if every stick that lined the sidewalk, its frayed end splintered like a broken elbow, had adoption papers tacked to its underside, and it was your job to read it, to respond to it simply because you saw it, and there is something in the seeing, isn't there? A kind of ownership, duty, muled burden that demands you give the past, the dead a voice.

Would it be too much? The cloud of witnesses becoming a witnessing cloud, the voices like snow, impossible to separate as they fall, and, despite their individuality, fading into a wet nothingness when it lands.

I am writing a book about growing up as a nondenominational Christian, and yes, the book mentions God, and yes, doubt, and yes, death. But each sentence pulls at me, demanding to have its own in-the-moment voice. Even now, the mood of the above questions seems too maudlin, and I feel the weight of having to keep this up. What if I wanted to make insignificant puns, or reference pop culture (I used to love Pete & Pete!) in a way that isn't quite 'literary' to show that I don't take myself seriously?

So, ok, yes: let's dispense with any sense of o-blog-ation. Let's admit that I've hardly ever kept a journal and that I hand-wrote more letters in elementary school than I have ever since. When I tried journaling, I acted as if there would be an audience, real or imagined, and when I write letters, they sound like I'm talking to myself. Basically, I have a hard time writing to write. Let's realize that the apostrophe-s in "let's" implies an audience, real or imagined, and that I will just write some moments as essay for us. Sometimes it'll be about the book, sure, but other times, not, because, who cares? I will, as Emerson wrote, essay myself to be.

I pick up the stick, unfold the slip of paper.