Hand In

How ridiculous I was when I was a puppet!

Myself as the Holy Roman Empire.

Those who (while visiting a foreign country) have lost the end of a Q tip in their ear and have been unable to explain their problems

Something people don’t know about, though it was important. Something that was held together with odd alliances and manifold investments, seen and unseen, that didn’t necessarily belong where it was, or anywhere, but still, was.

Myself as parts that might want to strike out on their own.

But isn’t it very hard to take an interest in things

Myself as a secret foundation, invisible stone.

Myself as ancient.

Myself as trying to seem steady.

Myself as Hapsburgs: people who overthink and overfit in with each other, and people who are nervous about outsiders.

Myself as impersonating Charlemagne.

Myself as hundreds of sub units.

Myself as under review as justified

Myself as fake Roman, which was fake Greek, which was ultimate self-confidence.

Myself as not a fan of the pope, though happy to see him.

scrambling to get a place a little higher up on some slippery pyramid because we don’t know how high the water will be when the tide comes in

Myself as fought over.

Myself as unable to relax about Italy.

Myself as having been around, but unknown.

Myself as settled by reformations.

Myself as 65 ecclesiastical states.

Myself as regrouped by Luther.

Myself as some kind of way out of here.

Myself as holy.

A body fits so snugly, it’s so tight, that at times you feel like splitting the seams.

Myself as having holes, and also areas of anarchy.

Myself as coming together at times, feast days, coronations, such.

a clown’s smirk in the skull of a babboon

as imagined compass, with unsteady center leg

Then even his luggage belonged to him again

That’s what I have

Image: Pull Toy of a Cart and Driver, ca. 15th century, Indonesia.

Words: Carlo Collodi, Michael Ondaatje, George Orwell, Wikipedia, Mark Vonnegut, Bob Dylan, Simone de Beauvoir, e.e. cummings, James Baldwin

Rain

I was holding my cat, looking in the mirror at her, and behind me I saw motion. A leak from the ceiling onto the middle of the living room rug. Very 2020 of you, ceiling, I said.

Though I should have castigated the roof and the attic.

I did my usual walk to coffee and loop of downtown. I get a mile and a half of walking out of it. I’ve been mostly keeping up with my training to walk a 10k. Mostly is enough.

I stopped a while in our Japanese garden. Those magenta fluffballs on trees were half water, half plant, little clouds, amazing. A flowering tree bore white blossoms, pine-cone shaped, but as relaxed as pine cones are armored. Fragrant.

I sketched the tree, the stone pagoda sculpture, the Victorian red brick elderly bank building behind.

Much of what I love in Lawrence, Kansas has been spared: there is the yarn barn ( I love their name so much), the awkward Minsky’s crouched on a ground floor, the spectacular long windows of our toy shop, filled with cheekily arranged delights. Endurign dive Louise’s, open before noon and offering drinkers a place. The two optical shops, where, I always assumed, someone rich went to buy rich glasses. The four or five barber shops, all long and narrow, all as old as time, walls covered with Jayhawks and championship banners. The used bookstore, where I visit the black cat who reminds me of my darling Miranda.

A lot has been spared.

Almost everything.

The eyes of people are different, though. For a long time, I didn’t see anyone’s eyes, I just saw whether their nose and mouth were out, or whether they were covered. I raged inwardly at anti-social behavior (no mask).

Today I saw a lot of eyes. Downtown, people are masked and unmasked, outdoors. Some restaurants are filled with people talking and laughing, dressed up for graduation festivities or from church.

Jefferson’s is full, serving beer and burgers; and the Roost serves tons of breakfasts, and the Eldridge turns out meals on the same spot Quantrill burned down.

Other places remain dark: Alchemy, where all we did was sit for hours and drink coffee and eat pastries off plates with pictures of rabbits and foxes, and Ladybird, where they have fed people for free the whole pandemic. They are taking a well-deserved break.

When I got my coffee, I asked the barista what was on his mask. Monsters and donuts, he explained. His sister made it for him. He has a big head.

My sister made me masks, too, I said.

I just started here. Before I worked at a grocery store. It was scary. People yelled at us.

My cousin worked at a grocery store. My heart goes out to you, I said. It sounded like a dumb and strange thing to say, but it was true.

I guess we’re all scared.

Yeah, I said.

We all kind of want to cry, but we keep going.

Yes, I said. Yes.

I also wanted to tell him thank you for saying you want to cry. I’ve done a couple of zoom classes where we talk about our feelings, and the people who talk about how good they are, I could strangle them with my bare hands.

I’ve been thinking about being motivated by love instead of fear. My aunt is seriously ill. We are worried. Sometimes I am worried so severely about that, I just want to stop feeling.

This morning I felt, God is with her, and has always been with her, and will always be with her. I don’t even know what I mean by that.

It doesn’t matter.

This morning I felt motivated by love.

It’s been hard for me during this middle aged time to even consider love. Well, love of my family and friends, yes. I have in many ways made that the center of my decisions, and that has been very healthy.

But love in general? I work from love of my family and friends because I know it’s there, even when I don’t feel it.

My quote in my high school yearbook was Van Gogh (yes, I was insufferable): something about being motivated more by love than anger.

The entire DT administration, yes, I was motivated by anger. It was exhausting. Now it’s more like a pilot light, knowing those Nazi lunatics can reemerge at any time.

This week I went to the theater for the first time in God knows how long…did I see any theater after leaving New York? Maybe not, I’ve been broke.

My niece and twenty other kids performed “Xanadu” (Junior!). I forgot how uncomfortable theater seats can be. And how wild it is, always, still, to have humans get up and do a thing for you, everyone watching.

I realized that I kind of have LIVED “Xanadu,” that is, I took an abandoned property and filled it with all the arts. However, I had no help from any Australians.

I love seeing kids with grey sprayed in their hair to play older characters. It just kills me. Like, we are all wearing our current age, but inside we have the baby, the twentysomething, the elderly.

The eyes of people downtown today were all accessible. Every face, all the eyes, I knew, this person has felt scared. A lot. In the last year, this person has been fearful. Every person.

So my heart went out to all of them. How afraid we have all been. How afraid we still are. How vulnerable. How aching for reassurance. I saw that in all the eyes, even the eyes I sometimes look away from, the blonde sorority girls, the guys who look like they might drive that pickup truck with the TRUMP flag flying.

Love Garden is still there. As a long-term Lawrence aficiando, I remember when Love Garden was upstairs, and I could show you the doorway, and the decoration that shows what is used to be. They’re down the street now, and more importantly, they are the latest recipients of the humane society kitten project!

Love Garden’s squid hangs in the window, so below the kittens are living in a sea scene. One blonde kitten sat in an oyster with a pearl. He got up and pushed the pearl out and started chasing it. A black kitten and a blonde kitten bit gently at each other and threw each other around.

As I stood there absorbing the kitten energy, two other women came up to see them.

I think I’ll stay here all day, I said.

I can’t bring home any more cats! one said.

I don’t have my own apartment yet, the other said.

But your dad is a nice person. You should ask him.

I don’t know.

You should ask.

The two of them went inside the shop, perhaps to try to finagle the right to adopt a kitten.

The rain slowed up as I walked home.

At Home

Paris, London, Rome, the three places in Europe I’ve visited. They were all broken.

Cities that were whipped by the evils of World War II. Terrible things had happened there, and no one thought it was all for the best, or that people had learned a lesson, or that everything happens for a reason.

Hundreds of years of wars will do that. Wars over religious practice and land, ostensibly. What was actually at stake was who of the super rich would have a little more power, who a little less, and who would lose their heads.

American myth is that everything happened beautifully. There are footnotes.

One is: well, it is very sad about the Indians.

The other is: it is sad about slavery, but “we” fought a war to stop that evil, and now it is over.

We’ve been revisiting the latter story, in particular. We need to.

(Other footnotes: oops, Vietnam. The Great Depression, when we got spanked for having too much fun, so knock it off.)

This week, a reality TV star was charged with possessing images of children being abused. I was fascinated with this story. The nature of the particular crime doesn’t trigger me. I have been very lucky in not experiencing any trauma related to those particular horrors.

What I am obsessed with is how people don’t know things, how they lie to themselves, how they try to put on a brave face, and how that blows up.

I am obsessed with watching old reality TV or interviews when the person had a secret, or something terrible was about to happen, and there is, as yet, no trace of it. Is there?

Were there clues?

So much confession about reality TV. On another show I’ve watched forever, a wife has an emotional affair. The episodes in which I know what she was thinking, what she was doing, fascinate me. Can you see people being suspicious? Can you see the secret in her eyes?

In another episode, can you see people who are about to become ill, becoming ill?

Can you see someone who will shortly die, is there an ashiness to them, or a brittleness, or a foreboding?

I think I would have always found the suburb where I grew up to be an anxious, brutal place. When my parents divorced, and our family went from being A Perfect Family to The Disaster, the cruelty of the place became clearer to me.

I had a friend in elementary school who took me aside in 6th grade and said, “My family has a deep, dark secret, and I will tell you when we graduate from high school.”

We had been in the same cohort of kids since kindergarten, and would I know him and make note of him six years later? Sure.

I could have known, I think of my parents’ split. I could have been prepared.

Thus one of the primary stories of my life was born. I wish I could have known. Fuck it, preparation won’t help anyway. And I’m going to prepare the shit out of this.

In Europe, it’s hard to pretend that the Nazis “weren’t really that bad.” (Yes, I know some people do, and that’s frightening, but a place where Nazis actually caused damage, and left marks, makes them harder to ignore.)

In the United States, in the last few years, I have hope that more people take seriously our white supremacists and what they’re willing to do– march in the streets, try to get their leaders elected to office, court the favor of the president, wink slyly while increasing their legitimacy, chant racist propaganda and pivot to whine about being rejected or demonized. As if the ideas and actions aren’t demonic.

It’s hard to frame events of the last few years as anything but something to survive. I resent how people have hurt me. People who supported racists. People who insisted school sports had to continue, endangering teachers’ lives. People who literally shit on our Capitol. People who shot suspects as if their lives were worthless, only considered as far as how much of a threat they might pose to others, not how much a human life is worth.

Maybe I can think of it as a maturing. Europeans have thought of Americans as ignorant, pathological optimists, shallow and naive.

We are.

Maybe after the last few years we are a little less so. A little more realistic about how a government can be taken over by dictators, by authoritarians. More realistic about how a government can turn on its own people. I’m more realistic about how a civil war begins. A country can have more than one, you know.

If with maturity comes a greater sense of responsiblity, good. If people realize that without their paying attention, we may lose our country, our ability to travel, our electricity, the safety and dignity of our government buildings, that’s good. We can. Some of the reason we’ve begun moving towards health is that people have grown up.

“It can never happen here.”

The helpful lesson of my parents’ divorce was that many, many things are out of our control. The divorce was not just outside of my control, as a kid, but outside of their control, really. Changes happen. Changes need to be made.

I don’t think I like places that are a little sad and broken because they are depressing. I like the frayed edges of cities, the places that are a bit rougher but also more free. I like those places because they feel more honest. When you can be honest about what hurts, or has been hurt, there is also room for authentic joy.

Yesterday

The light woke me, because snow was amplifying it. I pulled my head under my covers. I achieved a pretzel shape that felt perfect, fetal.

The really-you-must-get-up alarm chimed, one of many Apple noises that all sound like noooooo to me.

I pulled myself out of bed, loaded the coffee maker, opened and dumped cat food onto their blue plates, stepped into the bathroom for contacts and combing my hair. Added layers, sweaters– it was snowing!– and then clicked and clicked to start my class online. “Good morning,” I said. “I’m sorry it’s snowing.”

Most of them leave their cameras off most of the time, but by this point in the semester they know that I have called on everyone at least once, every class, so it’s rare that someone falters when I ask.

It snows and snows, and it’s a horror, as snow feels like trapped, like the end of the porch sitting that bloomed moments of peace in our year of fear. It’s going to be quick, though, it’s going to be quick.

Out the window, the trees wear more snow than usual, snow held on their leaves, their new leaves. It will melt. It will be gone.

I explain, my students write, I explain, they ask questions, I show them, there are no questions.

The cycle goes again. I have, as they say, two “sections.”

It snows.

They write. I watch their phantom typing on a shared “space,” a visual we all can see and using the language we all use, and the characters. They write things like, “What do you know about how aerospace engineers design weapons for space?”

They write, “How do advertisements try to manipulate consumers?”

When I can stand because the boxes with their names have all disappeared, leaving me the solo zoom space that is basically a mirror… the snow sits.

The verdict in the trial of George Floyd’s murderer will happen soon. The jury is out. “Out,” I think, a funny description for people cloistered in a conference room talking through one of the most contentious and painful public issues of the recent past. There is a great deal of competition for that title.

I snuggle up on the couch under my warmest softest biggest blanket.

When I look outside again, the trees, grass, 11th Street, all is in color again, as if I moved from my the black and white set on my mother’s rattan dresser to the family room furniture-sized set and the brown braided rug where we sat for Saturday morning cartoons. Color. Who would know there had been winter, briefly?

My mother’s cat is missing. The jury may render a verdict. I drive to pick up my niece.

The radio announces the verdict is in. The jury had been out, now the verdict is in. We will hear in the next half hour, the radio says. Another moment I know what faraway and famous people are doing. I know Barack Obama and Vice President Harris and Jesse Jackson and President Biden and all the great leaders of the Black community are waiting, holding their anxiety in their chests.

I ask my niece if she will help me look for my mother’s cat. She says yes.

I go pick up her sister. I remember being in this elementary school pick up line the day of the election, Tuesday, November 3, 2020, bleary with fear, with cars ahead of me and behind me, the brick school next to me, the playground ahead of me, before I turn around the corner, to the back of the school, where the kids wait in neat lines.

I remember thinking, what can the future be? How can it exist? Will there be battles, or war?

In the same spot, in the same car, sitting on the same ripped up old upholstery that I’m fond of, old, sturdy car with a back hatch ready to haul.

We tortoise along as kids are retrieved.

Would you help me look for the cat, I ask my other niece. Yes, she says.

I ask my usual questions: what happened at recess, what are you doing in music class, but also I leave the radio up, so I can barely hear it over our conversation. It is of paramount importance to me that I give the kids my attention. This is a special circumstance, I tell myself.

We hit the highway on our cat-finding mission.

Still no verdict.

It’s almost four. We were supposed to hear by four.

I find myself pointing out dumb things: look at that redbud! So much purple! There’s the Tesla dealership!

I don’t have the credit card that would enable us to test drive one, I tell them. But if we could, of course we would drive straight to Mexico. That’s my joke. Straight to Mexico!

Getting off the highway, they see a couple of guys with signs, asking for help.

“Let’s give them the socks!” they say. We have taken some care packages for people who are homeless, and I have two in my car. They are socks with water bottles, hand sanitizer, a granola bar, and a note from the child who put the thing together.

“On the way back,” I promise them, though I am slightly concerned about how we can safely deliver the sock packages at the interstate entrance and exit ramps.

We are approaching 103rd Street and State Line when the judge begins speaking on the radio. Guilty.

What everyone said was true: we all exhaled, and if we could have all exhaled in the same direction, we could have blown a sailboat across the Atlantic, one puff.

Then guilty, guilty.

Stopped at 103rd and State Line. We are in Missouri, since we are northbound. Kansas is southbound. I pick up my phone to see my text strand with friends.

“He’s been found!” is another message. My mom’s cat is home. He was in the neighbor’s bushes. Three cats have escaped her house. One we found in a garage, crying, one was hit by a car and killed, and this third one now, also safe and sound. Safe and “sound,” meaning in a place we can trust its integrity.

I turn left and into a driveway. Return a couple of texts. Turn the car around. “Okay, I guess we’ll give those guys the packages.”

The first one is easy because the road has a shoulder. I pull over on the shoulder, and one kid jumps out and runs up to the man asking for help. She runs back.

I turn around again to approach the opposite corner, another intersection of the street and an exit ramp. There isn’t a shoulder here, but I’m watching the light and figuring with a few seconds of hazard lights, and then the length of a red light, this is a pretty safe plan.

The other kid (“We’ll take turns!”) climbs over, hops out, runs up and hands off the sock package. She’s back in; we zoom away with the green light.

There’s one more time we have to turn around, and then we’re on our way home.

Note: the sock packages are gathered and offered at Scraps KC, and here’s a link to that project.

Image: detail of “Moses striking the rock with a stick to bring forth water, while the Israelites look on in amazement” by Jean-Baptiste Haussard, ca. 1729, Metropolitan Museum of Art.