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On the Sad Height

Now I am become destroyer of worlds. I do this not with a glee for destruction, but with a love for what I know my creation might someday become. I mourn the loss of each character, idea, plot thread, scene, word, and sentence. As difficult as it is, though, I know that burning away the old growth, makes way for the new. I’m giving the seeds hidden in the earth a fighting chance to see daylight. I reap not for the reaping, but because I am a farmer, and I understand not just that Death is part of Life, but that, on a deeper level, the two really are one and the same.

But no amount of reasoning, no swinging of mythic totems, no high-toned prayer, no potion dulls the deep-in-the-muscle ache that comes with cuts this deep. I keep remembering when I sliced my thumb open (about this time, two years ago), and how that pain had the glassy jangle of a paper cut, but it also had a deeper, basso ache of muscle disrupted. That was how I knew it was bad, that I’d probably cut through a tendon or something (which was exactly what I’d done). These cuts I’m making now are like that, all the way through blood and meat to bone, and that’s exactly how much it hurts. As blithe as I may be about it casual conversation, I’m mourning. It’s not just words I’m removing, it’s ideas that I’ve birthed, nurtured up to fruition, admired, and felt proud of. And now I just have to sweep them off the table in multiple violent acts of destruction.

The joys of a creator are singular and solitary, which I am ok with. The pains and travails are just as solitary, though, and that’s much harder for me. We get a newsletter each week from the farmer who runs our CSA. This year, he reported that the farm discovered that their tomatoes, just before they started to ripen, had started to succumb to the blight that’s been walloping our region for the past few years. So they had to pull them all out and burn them. Every single one. I almost cried because I have some idea of what that felt like (and maybe a little because it meant we weren’t going to see more than a couple tomatoes this summer). On a farm, though, at least you’ve got all your other co-workers and farmhands who know the ache of such an resection. No one but me is ever going to know or understand the cost of the creative destruction that occupies me now.

So I just wanted to take a moment here to pay my respects to the dead. My writerly equivalent of taking a deep breath before returning to this task I’ve set for myself, pushing this rock up this goddamn mountain.

[Postscript: I wrote this entry a few days ago, planning to publish it today. This morning, I learned that my grandfather, whom I never really knew, passed away yesterday. At first I was going to pull it -- too jarring a mismatch of sentiment and reality -- but upon reflection, I actually think it's as fine a reflection on The Big Sleep as I'm likely to be able to produce, in addition to also being about writing]

Do not go gentle into that good night
by Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Review: The Girl with All the Gifts

The Girl with All the Gifts
The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So this is actually the second book (the first was Raising Stony Mayhall) I’ve read that comes at the zombie genre from the angle of, “What if there were a nice zombie, and what if that zombie were actually a child?” It’s a sub-sub-genre of horror fiction: babeh zombehs. Zombinos? Zombino fiction. Zombino literature. Anyway, having read two zombino novels now, I consider myself something of an expert. Maybe you’ve heard of me.

I enjoyed long stretches of this book, but there were some patches that I liked less than others, too. There were a few scenes where the live, human protagonists were trapped among, around, or near zombies, and had to resort to violence plus cleverness to get away. I know I probably shouldn’t read zombie fiction if that sort of scenario is not my cup of tea, but still, it bored me. I will say this though: the writer does a great job of bringing the violence and gore to squirm-inducing life. I was impressed, over and over, at the author’s ability to make me see and feel the splatter scenes afresh.

The real soul of this book, though, is Melanie, the zombino star. She is a vivid, interesting, clever, and conflicted character. I enjoyed every moment she was on the page. I just wish she’d gotten more of a starring role in the 2nd act, which I felt like was ceded to the live human characters, who simply weren’t as interesting. Melanie actually ties for interesting points with Stony Mayhall, the other “different” zombie who has his own book.

There’s a villain in this book, and I won’t spoil it by saying who she is, but I will say I thought she was underpowered. The protagonist has her under her thumb pretty much throughout the 2nd and 3rd acts, and I think that’s one of the elements that keeps this book from leaping above its genre bonds and becoming something super-interesting.

Another thing holding it back is that I think the character motivations sorta… wane through the 2nd act. The originality of the story at this point isn’t too strong (refugees have to sneak and fight their way through zombie country to get to a safe place), and I feel like the characters know it and don’t care. So it’s hard to care as a reader, too.

One thing I particularly loved was the depictions of the final state of the zombieism-inducing pathogen at the end. I wouldn’t say it was exactly fresh, but it was freshly depicted, and I loved every single description of its late stage appearance and taxonomy. Great improvement on the typical “virus” story.

I read this in audio format, and the narration was 5-star. She particularly nailed Melanie’s voice and tone. Really added to the strength of the work.

I really really want to give this 3.5 or 3.7 stars, but alas I can’t, and I don’t think it’s quite 4-star material. So I have to give it 3 stars. Compared to other zombie books I’ve read though, I’d easily give this 4 stars. I look forward to reading more by this author. She’s got a gift for gut-grabbing description, and I can’t wait to see what she produces as she matures and develops as a writer.

View all my reviews

Home Again

As previously mentioned, E and I went to my hometown of Webster Groves, MO this past May. That trip had a lot of fun moments for us, and I’m happy for the memories we created together there. But there was also some sadness, and some inner confrontings of past and present. To be honest, I haven’t talked about the trip much, or at least not what it meant for me on the deepest levels. Partly that’s because I’ve been taking my time digesting the experience, and partly because it’s all just so sad. Now, like I said, we did have a really great time, but there was something about being back in the place I grew up (now tagged by the media as a “struggling city”) that was just heartbreaking. They say you can’t go home again, and I always thought that was because home changes so much on you when you’re not looking, that it’s just not home anymore when you try to go back. But that wasn’t what happened to me. What happened to me was this: I discovered that the person who might go back and find the comforts of home in Webster Groves, Missouri… that person is gone. I can’t go home again because the me that called place home simply doesn’t exist anymore.

Let me rewind a little bit to put this visit in context. I was actually born in a naval base in North Carolina, while my father was a Marine. After I was born, my parents relocated a couple times before settling down in a tiny little subdivision in Ferguson, MO, probably around 1973 or ’74. Yes, THAT Ferguson. We lived there for a few years, and that’s where my earliest memories occur, until the summer of ’77, when I was five years old and we relocated to a bigger home in Webster Groves. WG was my home for the next ten years, that special geographical boundary where I always felt my heart resided, until my family moved to Kentucky. That move made me miserable and I became fiercely homesick for my friends at my old school, and for the lush, green, tree-lined streets of Webster Groves. Before this May, I got to visit WG twice, once around 1996, and then again around 2005. These visits renewed me. There’s no other word for it. Going back to WG, which still, after decades, felt like home felt was a return to the source, the one place on all the wide earth where I could be myself, drop all my guards, and just be. These visits restored me to Life, and restored life to me.

That same restoration was what I expected this last time around, except this visit would be even more awesome, because this time, I’d be able to stay in the actual neighborhood where I grew up, for a solid week. It’s where our B&B was, and we’d be there for seven whole days, not just the paltry 1 or 2 I’d been able to visit before.

Right away though, as soon as we arrived in WG and took our first walk around my old ‘hood, I knew something was different. At first it was like having a pair of magical glasses. If I had the glasses off, I saw the place now, as it was, a little as E must be seeing it. If I had the magic specs on, I could see the place as I used to see it, infused with meaning and rich, private historical detail. After a little bit of flipping back and forth between glasses and no-glasses, I found I could, like, break the glasses in half, and have one eye covered by Pastvision, and one eye set in Presentvision. This half-lensed vision was the state in which I spent most of the rest of our visit.

After a day or so, it gradually became clear that the Matthias who’d visited in 1996 and 2006 only ever saw Webster Groves in Pastvision. In a sense, a return home for that Matthias was kinda like time travel. Physical visits to Webster Groves used to transport me directly back to the era when I first knew it, the unending and permanent condition of Summer 1983, when I was eleven, and my Walkman was new, and I had The Cars’ Greatest Hits on cassette tape loaded in it, and I was going to live forever in the condition of being young in the summer. On my other visits, I’d been able to slip into that old eternal skin of eternal youth and glow in the remembrance of past glory. Not so anymore. Now the illusions of youth seemed like just that: illusions.

Over the course of our hometown tour, I came to realize that, for most of my adult life, I’ve always felt like my real world, and my real life, resided somewhere in the past, at home, in Webster Groves, this place and time I’d mythologized as the safe place I used to live before my parents made us move to Kentucky, and I became an unhappy, angry, dissatisfied, lost teenager. I felt like my center, and the roots of my being resided in this place that even sounds a little mythic, a little too breadbasket-of-America to be believed, Webster Groves, Missouri, USA.

Now, 2014 Matthias seems to have lost that facility. The tremendous gains of the past few years do, it turns out, have some cost associated with them. That skin I used to love to slip into, it feels too small now. Now my center feels so much bigger. It’s with E, and all the memories we’ve created in Cambridge, MA, sure, but also Italy, Kentucky, Germany, western Massachusetts, New York City, and all the other places we’ve visited and lived since we started building a life together. I’ve learned, mostly through my life as E’s partner, that the world is a much bigger place than Webster Groves, and that love is even greater than I imagined it. I’ve learned to feel at home in more places and in more ways than that old Matthias who pined for the quiet, green streets of Webster Groves could imagine.

I don’t mean to say the bittersweet tendrils did not reach out and stroke me, tease me, catch me, teach me while we were on our tour. We visited the town library, where I spent countless summer hours, gathering as many books as I could carry home, we visited old neighbors who still remembered me and whose homes I still remembered the insides of 30 years later, and I showed E the secret shortcuts and cut-throughs you learn when you’re a kid and need to get everywhere by foot or bike. I touched a lot of the past, and a lot of the past touched me.

But all those touches felt like goodbye kisses. I don’t need you anymore and you don’t need me anymore and that’s ok and let’s just let go kisses. One last time kisses. I might go back, it might be nice, but the ache for home was laid to rest, for better or worse. Something has died, something else has been born, and life changes and we let go and move on because to do otherwise is to just sit around and wait for Nothing to happen. I will miss the ache, I will miss the urge to keep looking over my shoulder, and it does feel, so much, like a part of me has abandoned another part of me, and that’s terribly sad, and I’ve spent weeks trying to digest it and be ok with it.

I have this terrific motivation to do so, though. I have the future, now, and it’s a future I can reach out and grasp with both hands, and look it in the eyes and give it a big welcome home kiss. I can build a life with what I have now, and worry less (never not at all, I don’t think) about the past and its hold on me and what I owe to it. I can carry less past, and that makes my step lighter, and that means I can run, even faster now, into the greatest that possibility has to offer me, us, our life together, home.

Home by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros on Grooveshark

Now For a Breath I Tarry

Maybe you saw this article back in May, maybe you didn’t. If you didn’t, go read it, or let me just save you some time and effort with this spoiler: aimless walking is in decline. Few people in our civilized, western part of the world walk just for the sake of walking. The article in question wrings its hands a little over this decline, and lists some of the benefits of aimless walking, but I want to share my own.

You see, I’ve always been a fan of going for a walk. It’s one of my favorite things to do. Just as I believe a meal tastes better and nourishes more thoroughly when enjoyed with friends and family, I believe the mind and body function better when employed for the sake of walking. When I’m walking, with no destination, I have a powerful sensation that my cup of life is exactly full. If I sit still, I inevitably wind up feeling like life, real life is happening somewhere else, that I’m missing something that’s happening somewhere, and I can’t do it for very long. My cup underfloweth. On the other hand, if I’m in a car, or even on a bike, I feel like life is winging past my sensorium so quickly that I cannot possibly catch all the data my senses want to catch. But when I stroll, with nowhere to go and no destination (save back home, eventually), life rolls in at exactly the right pace for me to enjoy the new, digest it, and then take the next step. Life happens at exactly the right tempo to leave me feeling full, but wanting more.

If I’m walking down familiar paths, I can notice more: these flowers are in bloom this week, that house has a new porch light, this time of day is busier here than it was last week. I become a part of my neighborhood and my environment at a scale that’s manageable and eminently tangible. This kind of activity fosters my appreciation for the small things in life, because the familiar walk offers only small things, when taken regularly. I am a part of the eminently effable.

Or I can tune all that out and sink back into the farthest reaches of my (ineffable) imagination. I can work on my book, I can solve problems, I can pick apart nuance. There’s a facility and a fluidity of thought that arises during the common walk that I simply don’t get anywhere else. It’s like there’s some level of minimal occupation that is required by the body and attention in order for the creative power to unlock its own cage and set forth, a flywheel of productivity that only walking can set to humming.

Walking sits right at this perfect intersection of nature and civilization. It’s natural because it uses the body, because it offers the body a chance to participate the natural world on its own steam. But it’s also civilized because walking upright was our first step out of animality, because aimless walks are possible only in a world where distribution of labor allows for leisure, aimless time, and because it also offers a chance to participate in the civilized world. As I walk, each step perfectly balanced on a point at the intersection of nature and civility, I become conscious of my own mysterious nature, of the mystery of all human endeavor, and just how much of everything, everywhere I look, bears the human stamp of civilization crossed with nature.

But my favorite walks are the ones I take with my beloved wife. We share the same fondness for walks. It’s actually very hard to imagine what our relationship would be like without our frequent walks. They remind me that we are two embodied beings, and that we are two lone sparks together in a vast and indifferent cosmos. Aimless strolls let us hold hands, then drift apart, and then come back together again. They remind me that we are here for a short while, with no particular place to go, but that that’s ok, because just walking is just fine. Walks give us a chance to talk things through, and give us a chance to reconnect if we haven’t had a chance to check in for a few days. They remind us that every step we take is better taken together, and they help remind us that every turn and every choice is better when agreed upon.


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