Focus

"Kate's Collection"
© 2012 Whitney Reed

As a kid, I was mesmerized by my parents’ collection of National Geographics. The pictures of all those tribal people with neck rings and ear lobes that draped over their shoulders; strange animals in wet, neon green rain forests; snakes with their mouths open so wide you could see down inside their sickening hollow bodies, fangs dripping. These images haunted me. On the shelves, the magazines were harmless yellow-spined glossies pressed together above my dad’s record collection. I don’t know why my mom kept getting them, or perhaps they were inherited from my grandparents. I only know that on days when the maid told us we couldn’t walk on the freshly vacuumed carpet, I covered my island of a couch with these magazines, I opened them for the pictures, the horror, the worlds so colorful and so far away, so full of people, creatures, natural disasters, phenomenons.

Last week, I stayed in a home in Idaho (in the middle of a lake, in the middle of the mountains) that was filled with National Geographics, which led me to the website where you can find more beauty and more horror than any other one location on the internet: solar tornadoes; armless, legless amphibians. Did you know the Egyptians fed bird mummies? Some team of smart folks found mummified sacred scarlet ibis remains stuffed full of snails. Were you aware of this tiny spider whose brains are so big, they spill over into his legs? Speaking of spiders, what’s worse than those that jump? Have you seen this “King of Wasps,” they just found in Indonesia? Or this leaf-nosed bat they found over in Vietnam? Faces only a mother could love (assuming she has the same face).

In many ways, I believe that my draw to this kind of content stemmed largely from my boring, suburban, middle-class upbringing. I played sports, made mostly A’s and B’s in a private elementary school, snuck out a few times to drink beer in my later high school years, but, in general, I had a fairly unremarkable childhood–never did anything that warranted punishment more severe than perhaps a curbed curfew, never suffered any great personal tragedy or loss. I had the kind of safe, sweet childhood every parent wants for their child. What’s strange is that, despite the safety of the sheltered world I lived in, I was always afraid of something. And generally, my fears were unfounded in any real experience–they all pretty much came from National Geographic. The two biggest fears for me were snakes in my bed and Chinese Dragons that I imagined followed me into my parents’ room at night (when I was fleeing the snakes). In order to fall asleep, I would tell myself stories to push the scary out of my mind. I was always in these stories, and I generally set the stories against one of the other-worldly, awe-inspiring backgrounds from National Geographic. Like this, or this, or this.

Of course, what I’m most afraid of is myself. This is particularly inhibiting when it comes to my writing. Regarding my most recent writer’s block, a friend told me to “just talk and see what happens.” What happens when I write is I do one of two things: I admit I’m afraid or I pretend I’m not. Personal writing anyways. And as I get braver and braver, I have less to say. Because writing for me has generally been linked to fear. But now, for the first time in my life, I’m afraid of so little. It’s like my life has become one of those landcapes I linked to above–one of those worlds that is so large, so vast, so teeming with Awesome that all things I’ve been afraid of are diminished to the point of nearly-nonexistence–you can’t see a snake from the top of a waterfall. And so it becomes about what I see, it becomes about focus. My writing has become the stories I make from that focus (stay tuned).

So, as I was flipping through the National Geographic I brought to bed with me on my first night in Idaho, on the very same page as step-by-step directions on how to make a shrunken head (which sounds quite messy and very hot), I discovered this: That a blue whale’s heartbeat can be detected from two miles away. I love that there’s a heart on earth that big. So big in fact, that you and me both could crawl through the arteries and meet in the middle: in the middle of a heart in the middle of the ocean. So much blue.

Pet Beast

© 2010 David Parker

Teeth. Nails. Hair. A living mass with no brain but my own. A tumor. A wriggling, scratching thing beneath my skin, under my scalp. I seize it, pet it, rock it to sleep. It will have none, thank you.

Sometimes I call him Grades-Are-Due, sometimes Shit-I-Forgot-to-Pay-That-Bill, or If-Only-I-Had-Tenure, or I’ll-Never-Be-A-Writer. But usually, he just goes by I’m-An-Idiot. At least, that’s what he answers to.

And he only wants to play at night. All day long, he’s sleeping. Purring like a kitten. No big deal. But the darker the room gets, the longer his shadow. And, I swear, some nights, he could swallow you whole.

A Friday Folds Into Itself And Falls Away

© 2010 David Parker

Friday afternoons, I begin to breathe. I’m sitting outside with a beer that is quickly turning warm waiting on a friend whom I refer to as Aunt Bea and whose kindness always overwhelms me. She’s the type that still mails cards (you know, with stamps). And while she’s stuck in Game Day traffic, I have the opportunity to talk to another friend who is going through one of those times that makes me want to reach through the phone and press my hand into hers and just squeeze I’m here. But I’m not there, I’m here, drinking a beer and watching a young man who dines alone awkwardly make conversation with the older woman sitting near him waiting on her party. To his burger, he says, You never let me down. I’m thinking I can’t even live up to that hamburger with my friend on the phone so far away and me doing that thing I always do when I don’t know what to say, which is to say nothing except I love you because what else is there to say.

Around the time I get off the phone, Aunt Bea has arrived, ruddy-cheeked and grinning. We eat and drink and have one of those conversations that can only happen when you’re both on the same page moving at the same speed through your lives. By the time we leave, I’m sweating and a bit too full. And as I pull into the driveway, I’m overcome by that lonely, sinking feeling I get when I realize that Ruthie’s at her dad’s house for the weekend. It’s a feeling that always surprises me, because I expect to feel relief, but it’s a long time falling asleep the first night she’s gone.

nothing breaking the losing of no little piece

© 2010 David Parker

I’m washing dishes at the kitchen sink. I’m angry. The water is running from my hands to my elbow and puddling on the floor around my feet. I scrub the plate hard, feel the beading around the edges. I’m thinking harder than I’m scrubbing, my thoughts like fists on the back of my brain. Put the plate down on the rack to dry. I’ve exhausted it. Pick up the forks, knives, spoons. In my small hands they look awkward, heavy, primitive. The skin on my hands is older, harsher than I remember. When I straighten them, my knuckles look like the rings inside a tree cut down. I pause. Bring my hands dripping out of the water, stare at them. Pick up a glass. More scrubbing.

I realize I’m holding my breath. Exhale.

There’s mold growing up the inside of my single-paned windows above the kitchen sink. The plants are drooping over the windowsill. It’s too hard to remember something so simple as to water them. Their pots were painted by Ruthie.

The anger is beginning to bleed out of me into the warm soapy water. With every tedious piece of silverware scrubbed clean, I feel less like wings beating against a cage.

I put the last clumsy spoon in the silverware basket, wipe my forehead with the back of my hand. My gaze is directed through the window just above me, but my mind is still reeling from the rage, slowing down like a roulette wheel with the little ball clicking over the redblackredblackredblack. My focus shifts outside of myself, and I notice that it’s not dark yet. I see the trees with their leaves pressed up against the sky as if at any moment, someone could pluck them from the ground leaving only their impressions against the clouds. The leaf-stippled sky quiets the guilt I feel for getting so angry over what I’m not sure.

The sound of running water and Ruthie’s heavy footsteps behind me, her voice chirping. It’s bathtime.

‘Flicted with the Hubris

© 2010 David Parker

We started reading The Odyssey today in my AP class, and it’s got me thinking about quests and tests and challenges and nostos and hubris. Especially hubris, which is really a necessary flaw if you’re going to be an epic hero. I mean, being successful at anything requires a certain amount of ego, so if you’re going to be a fucking hero, I would imagine that you’d need maybe just a bit more hubris than the average guy. But in the end, the hubris is what brings the big boys to their knees. Well, hubris and fate.

The Odyssey was the first nail in my literary coffin. I read it my sophomore year of college in a Great Books class. It was the first time I realized that literature was about the human experience. It may have been the first time it was ever brought to my attention that there were certain universal aspects of being human. Except for the fact that Penelope never leaves the home, I love the narrative structure of The Odyssey: We begin with ourselves, our home; we go out into the world for a reason, on a quest; nothing goes the way we’d imagined it might; it takes a hell of a lot longer than we’d planned; we encounter challenges, battles, obstacles, monsters that test who-we-think-we-are; we eventually make it home (under strange sail and in exchange for a story); and nothing is as we remember it—not even ourselves. We thought we knew everything (hubris), we thought we were somebody (hubris), we bragged about how much of a somebody we thought we were (hubris), only to have our spirit sticks broken by the gods (fail). Just one big circle that begins and ends with me. And we arrive alone, without even our trusty hubris.

I think that’s why so many people experience success in their forties: it takes a long time and a lot of failing to get over the hubris. My twenties have been marked by arrogance and entitlement, and that too seems to be a universal piece of the human condition. Everyone is kind of an asshole in their twenties. We’re like Odysseus, messing over our accomplishments with our bragging. And my generation of braggarts is surely the worst yet as we proudly proclaim our cleverness from the tallest peaks of the Interwebs. Our status updates and tweets have a willingly captive audience and people like us. Social networking’s got us ‘flicted with the hubris. *heavy sigh* #kidsthesedays

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

© 2010 David Parker

It’s taken me nearly 28 years, but I’ve finally learned how to be alone. It sounds simple, but I’ve found that simple things (sticking to a budget, having patience, sharing, being nice) can be the hardest to accomplish. Being alone is one of the trickier simple things for me because I haven’t had much practice with it. I had roommates from the time I left for college until I left grad school to have Ruthie, at which point I swapped my roommates for a husband. Now that it’s just me and Ruthie and a boyfriend who works often and out of town, I have a lot of alone time on my hands. Especially in the summer time.

Before the summer began I made a conscious decision NOT to fill the days with furtive trips out of town, major projects, work. I made NO plans (very uncomfortable for me). After two days at home with Ruthie, I realized that I hadn’t done this since I was on maternity leave, nearly five-freaking-years ago. It took some trying, but I finally learned how to relax into being by myself. This was all new to Ruthie too. When I came to get her out of time-out (on a rug in her room), she asked (in her excited voice with her eyebrows raised) if she might be allowed to play in her room. It struck me that Ruthie has also spent a great deal of time away from home. During the week she was at daycare, and I’ve always packed the weekends with “fun things to do.” And so this summer turned into a nice, wide stretch of time for Ruthie and I to learn how to entertain ourselves at home.

The thing about me is when I’m really enjoying myself, I have this overwhelming urge to share it with someone. Whenever I find myself becoming immersed in a moment–coffee on the front porch in the early morning before Ruthie wakes up, making dinner with music and a beer in my hand, eating a pretty breakfast of yogurt and granola with fruit, catching fireflies with Ruthie before bedtime–I always want to call someone. To make it real. I mean, if I have this beautiful moment, and only I witness it, then it’s like the proverbial tree in the forest. And isn’t that why we write, take pictures, talk? To preserve something the way we see it or the way we want to see it so that others can witness it as we did?

When you have a child, everyone says, “Write it down. You’ll forget all of this.” They say that because they’ve already forgotten. And the other night when I was putting Ruthie to bed, just after she fell asleep, I kissed her fat, smooth, perfect cheek and pressed my palm to her chest to feel her fluttery heart. Her mouth was kind of open and she was clutching her favorite stuffed animal: an elephant named Audge-A who smells like love. And I thought of how I so desperately wanted to preserve the moment because I’ll never have it back. It’s our job as parents to remember our children and how we loved them while they’re small because if we don’t remember it, no one will. No one will know Ruthie as she is now, at four years old. No one but me. And I’m going to miss so much about little Ruthie when she’s big. Like how she treats a glass of chocolate milk like a bottle, sucking it over the rim of the glass until it’s gone. Or how she will spend nearly an hour making shapes on the floor with bobby pins. And when Ruthie gets older, like when she’s a teenager, she’ll think I hate her. And it’s my job to give her little-self back to her when she’s older, through stories, pictures, my writing, the drawings she’s done, the videos I’ve taken with my phone.

So I call people when I’m alone and loving myself and my life and what I’m doing. Or I write about it. Or I take a picture of it. Or I sketch it miserably on a napkin. And it’s spectacular how little I have to record for the moment to come flooding back to me. For example:

Sleeps like superman

Ruthie: “I gotta show Mr. Bear what’s the deal”

Magic number: 113

David & Max come in from a walk–smell like dirt and leaves ground up between my fingers, like cinnamon and heat

I’ll see these in a month, in five years, and I won’t just remember, I re-live them as vignettes. These snippets become gorgeous talismans. Without them, those moments would be lost. Forever. And if no one remembers, it’s like it never happened. But if I record it, I can remember it, and share it, and it can be lived and re-lived by more than one person. Forever. And that’s publishing: putting something down and sharing it with others so that when the moment has passed, or when you have, your life is still there, pulsing in ink.