Archive for sadness

Feels Like Fire, Isn’t Fire

Posted in Prose with tags , , on October 16, 2017 by sethdellinger

I was born and I’ll die.  This is shit you already know.  All of this—everything after this that I’ve written—is shit you all already know.  So, why bother?  Gotta do something, right?  Gotta do something. Mostly I think life is grand but sometimes I get melancholy.  I think it’s probably good to get melancholy sometimes, it sort of flushes your system out, presses some sort of existential reset button. I used to have a dog but he died recently.  One day he was there and the next day he wasn’t.  We paid a man in a white coat to give him drugs that made him die.  It was awful. I say again: it was awful.  Then we drove him into the country and buried him in a hole in the ground.  At night we used let our dog—Benji– out into the backyard. It wasn’t a very large backyard, but he stayed out there for as long as he could. He’d stay out there for hours if you let him. It looked like he was eating dirt but he was not eating during periods; he pulled at the ground with his paws, then flicked his tongue at it, again and again and again. I’m not sure what he was getting in there, but he was getting something. Some itty-bitty creature that was minding its own business. And probably scared the shit out of them and then killed them. Meanwhile Benji would have run away and never came back probably, if I opened the garage door and let him out. He’d been with us for years and was a member of the family, but still we held him hostage. In order for him to walk around the neighborhood he had to be put on a leash, dragged along behind us when he wasn’t not moving fast enough. What is all this? What’s going on here? Who are these animals, what are these critters, what are these lights blinking in the sky? It seems that everything is so far away from everything else. The things that are really close to you, like that glass on the kitchen counter, the magazine on the coffee table, are such a vanishingly small percentage of all the things in the universe, that technically everything in the universe is very far away from you. So far away from you you couldn’t even imagine it, and if you could imagine it, it would terrify you directly to death. Everything is far away from you and has no idea about you, no idea but your dog in the backyard eating moles or slugs buried underneath the dirt. Here on Earth there are immense caves, caverns deep beyond imagining, miles below the Earth’s surface, right now, as you read this, engulfed in a darkness beyond imagining, little tributaries or streams or even gushing rivers bounding through large hollow openings, intense chambers, drilling though soft limestone, they are there right now, incredibly far away from you. They must, despite their static nature, have some clue of themselves, some sense of awareness, an idea of their singularity. The timelessness, the long drawn-out affair of this plane, is it within them?  They don’t know anything about you though.  Somewhere a fifty-year-old newspaper deliveryman wakes up in the dead of night to put the papers in the bags, look at his new delivery list.  He gets in the car without a sound.  Rough tattooed men working in sewers for great pay light cigarettes.  A fourteen year old girl plays a piano in a suburban house all by herself.  This happens all the time.  Someone stands at the edge of a bridge, looking down, wondering what it would feel like, what it would look like, to leap, to soar, to fall, to end, but they don’t.  They don’t jump.  Elementary school kids stop their bikes in front of soda machines.  Other kids are out past curfew.  The professor imagines sleeping with the student, then on his way home, buys a diet soda at the gas station and pays in exact change.  Quiet dirgelike music plays in darkened living rooms, shades drawn, incense, incense.  Alleverywhere all over the world this is happening, so far from everything else.  The geese are eating the flowers, and why not.  The bills come in the house and flop down on the table. Yesterday I left the gas cap hang open on my car after I filled my tank, what a fool am I! Cosmic tomfoolery! The restauranteur arrives in their cold kitchen, turns the knobs on the flat grill, the pilot clicks, the gas whirrs.  Somewhere, lathes are expertly operated.  Sirens wail with someone behind a distant wheel.  Ships rise and fall in the bay.  The boy is made to mow the grass, he sweats.  A woman is flying an airplane, looks down, she sees a forest, she wishes she was in those trees, smelling it, smelling it all.  When I was young I used to have nightmares. They would repeat themselves, but they weren’t always the same, necessarily. There wasn’t anything inherently scary about these nightmares. In one, it would be me and strange people that I didn’t know, working feverishly to build a spaceship to win some sort of contest. The spaceships that we built were massive structures, disc-like in shape in most of my memories, and we would get up on scaffolding, pouring the cement to make them. That is about all I remember, except that somehow, also, this contest was accompanied by a constant persistent dread and sadness. I would wake up sweatier than you can imagine, lingering in the depth of my little kid’s psyche, not knowing why a dream about building a spaceship should be so sad. I would beckon my parents for what must be their superior insight to come but of course they could tell me nothing. Who could? Who could possibly understand such a thing? Nobody. Nobody could understand such a thing. Everything about us is a mystery, everything about the world around us is a mystery. Time marches on but it doesn’t. Of course time doesn’t march, the smartest people in the world can barely even accurately define time.  Everything lasts forever but it’s over in an instant. Everything is to be celebrated and joyous but ultimately is flat, only dreadfully horrifyingly sad.  Twenty years (or so) ago I thought I was going to die.  I was relentlessly addicted to alcohol and life was a blurred mess of agony, with an oddly high amount of joy thrown in for good measure. So many forgotten nights, so much haze. Some nights, though, I do remember.  Like a night a bunch of us drove to The Duck Pond.  The Duck Pond, the actual name of which is Children’s Lake, is a shallow, man-made lake in the scenic town of Boiling Springs.  It is about fifty feet across, and perhaps four-hundred feet long.  At its deepest point, it is perhaps five feet deep.  Large, multi-colored, boulder-sized rocks line its bottom.  It attracts a wide array of wildlife: ducks, geese, swans, turtles, beavers.  There are manicured walkways all the way around it, red park benches at regular intervals, and little vending machines that dispense corn, in case you may want to feed the ducks.  You are not supposed to go there at night, although I often have.  As my friends and I pull into the gravel parking lot, I make myself a fresh drink in the Super-Size McDonalds cup I always seem to have with me.  Someone retrieves a few beers from the trunk.  We all make sure we have our cigarettes.  We set off, to walk around the Duck Pond.  At night, you can hear the ducks, the geese, out on the water, but you can’t see them.  They aren’t very active at night, but every now and then, you hear a splash, the flap of a wing against the heavy air, a short quick quack.  It is melancholy in that worst way: dreary foreboding.  There is a place where the path kind of ends, and you are left to walk through grass for a bit, and under the canopy of some Willows.  In the sunshine, this part of the lake is the most beautiful.  At night, its majesty is lost.  You can feel the grass, and perhaps the spray of the dew against your shins, but the Willows are lost in the night.  The copse has disappeared.  If you were standing at this spot during the day, you would see that a narrow cement platform has been constructed, extending about fifteen feet into the lake.  This is like a small concrete dock, which serve as a place for the birds to hang out without being in direct contact with human passers-by.  During the day, this concrete dock is covered by birds; squaking, flapping, quacking birds.  During the night, it is abandoned, and is covered only in bird shit.  But it is truly covered in bird shit, like some foul Pollock.  As a group, we stop here.  We are mostly silent.  We are smoking, drinking, thinking.  I start to take my pants off.  Someone asks me, “What are you doing?”  “I’m going to run down that cement dock and jump in.”  They try to tell me not to.  They warn me that the water is very shallow here, and that the concrete dock is awash in bird shit.  I wave off their warnings.  Have these guys stopped wanting to see how far they can go?  I take off my shoes, my socks, my pants, my underwear.  I’m a naked man at the Duck Pond.  The guys have warned me, so they are no longer worried.  They are watching, smiling, ready to laugh and tell me they told me so.  I take a long sip of my drink.  I start running, down through the grass and then suddenly my feet hit concrete.  It is terribly slippery, and even while I am running, I can feel the bird shit sticking to my heels, squishing between my toes.  It is a gross feeling.  In this light, it’s not easy to see where the platform ends.  Just in time, I realize I can see the moon’s reflection in the water; I use this as a guide.  At the end of the platform, I jump hard and high, as if from a diving board.  I pull my legs up under my ass and clasp my hands under my shins: the cannonball position.  And I freeze there; I hover.  Time seemingly stands still.  See me from the back: my shaggy, rarely groomed brown hair, my pimpled back, a bit of flabby belly spilling over into view, my two half-moon ghost-white butt cheeks, and directly below that, the soles of my feet.  And in front of me, a nearly-black matte of stars, tree outlines and moony water.  Now, rotate around me, as if you were a movie camera.  Stop when you are beside me, at my profile.  My mouth, wide like Pac-Man, my ample gut, spilling forth like a sack of oatmeal, the curve of my haunches, my arms flung below me, seeming to hold me in place, to levitate me.  And behind me, a nearly-black matte of stars, tree outlines and moony water.  Now, rotate around me further.  Stop when you are in front of me.  See that look on my face?  That excruciating yawp of desperate living, desperate to feel these moony waters; see that fat, oatmealy belly, my hairy, caveman chest, nipples erect by the night wind, the pale fronts of my wobbly knees.  Now look behind me: look at those guys standing there, their faces frozen in various forms of laughter, disbelief, worry, apathy.  Look at those guys!  Oh, they are probably worried about so many things; I am sure they are worried that I am about to hurt myself.  Also, looking at the set of their mouths and the glint in their eyes, I’m willing to wager they’re worried about drowning in a ferry accident with two-hundred strangers in icy cold water somewhere, or whether they’ll ever get to walk the length of South America, or what they’d do if they found a dead body in a hotel hallway, or if they’ll keep having that dream where they show up to the wrong building for a college final exam, or if they have syphilis, or if they’ll ever be the father they want to be, or marry a woman as great as their mother, and in there somewhere are the realizations, too, the realizations we are having every moment of every day: the lines of morality and sanity we keep drawing and moving and drawing again with everything we observe, and the list of Hopes and Dreams that is under constant revision without us knowing, the importance of breath and bras and bicycles all neatly ordered and the smells we love so much like old books and stale cake and the things we know we’ll never do like fly a jumbo jet or hide in a refrigerator to scare the crap out of somebody and oh look at the list of regrets written all over these guys faces the women they wanted to fuck the cars they wanted to buy the movies they wanted to see as though they were already dead as though their whole story had been told but that’s not the truth now is it we lived, we were burning to live, we were burning to live!  And we did live, at least most of us, although now in our late thirties and early forites, a few of us have started to go. I have a thing like fire, but it isn’t fire.  It’s something I can feel on my skin, in my hair, even see it on my eyelids when I close them.  It flickers like flames and tingles like sparks, it’s love, truest love, and it burns like fire but isn’t fire, and it’s the only reason for anything at all, but I’ll be damned if I know what it actually is, from whence it comes or what it is made out of. But like I said, all those guys did live, even if maybe they were trying to die.  You can die really young, if you try hard enough.  I knew a girl from Chicago once. We met on the internet way back before that was the sort of thing that happened with any regularity. I was up really late at night, drunk of course, smoking cigarettes and using the different chat rooms available on America Online, back when chat rooms were the cutting edge of communication. I can’t remember what chatroom I found her in, but I’m sure it wasn’t anything incredibly respectable. Somehow we hit it off right away, finding a mutual interest in Pearl Jam, smoking cigarettes, and talking filthy. This is even before it was easy to send each other pictures, digital photography was just really something people had heard of, but nothing that regular people were doing on any grand scale. We chatted online quite a bit for a few weeks, then graduated to phone calls, and eventually she boarded a plane and came to see me. I picked her up at BWI and was immediately disappointed with her.  Something about how she wasn’t up to my standards physically. But I was not a cruel man, so I hid my disappointment as much as I could and spent the next few days with her. We had a fling, although I did not threw myself into it wholeheartedly, but almost out of a sense of obligation. I would spend the next few years basically dodging her, until for whatever reason I decided to take a trip to Chicago with another friend of mine, he knew a girl there that he was into, and I could see this girl from Chicago again. We took an over-land trip, he drove and I drank vodka the whole way. I remember almost nothing about the car trip. I remember talking about Stephen King and the band Red Hot Chili Peppers, smoking lots of cigarettes and crawling around in the backseat looking for a bottle that had somehow gotten back there. It was incredibly dangerous, but we did it anyway. Once we got to Chicago, I once again couldn’t really throw myself fully into the fling with this woman, we hung out in a hotel room with her, drank beer that was in the sink filled with ice. We watched the movie “At Close Range”, and talked like Christopher Walken. Then my friend and I drove home. I would talk to her off and on over the next few years, sometimes having phone calls frequently, oftentimes not talking for a year or more. Slowly we drifted into our thirties, becoming very different people as I emerged into addiction recovery and she drifted further into…everything else.  Her depression was immense.  We were very different people, ultimately, but once removed from our false fling we grew close, albeit from afar.  Suddenly in our mid-thirties she was calling me every day; she was falling deep into despair.  I had little advice for her.  After four or five days of phone calls, her Facebook profile lit up with her friends messages about how sad they were at her passing.  I guess she didn’t make it.  I’m too much about me, like to think about me, write about me, do my own thing, yada yada, et cetera et cetera, and on and on. Life is hard enough to figure out as it is, hard enough inside our own heads to figure out what is right, what it means to be a good and nice person who isn’t offensive without reason and who is kind and helpful without losing one’s authentic self, am I right?  Oh geez it’s complicated to even state the problem without creating a run-on sentence.  I mean it’s like, here we are, in our own heads, all alone, wondering what everyone else makes of us, worrying about all kinds of stuff we never say out loud like money and death (especially death) and how our breath smells and if we should cross the street yet or if we have some disease or are going bald or menopause is setting in and while we’re trying to silently figure all this out in our own heads all by ourselves we’ve got to interact with all these other damned people and you never really know (do you?) if you’re being nice or being a prick or hurting people unnecessarily or using guilt just to get your own way or maybe overreacting to other people’s harmless bullshit—and how can you figure all this stuff out?  How can you be nice and helpful without actually being someone else for a bit and observing how you are?  And then maybe it’s just your blood sugar, and you’re having a down day, and you need a nap, but who knows?  Maybe it’s more than that, maybe negativity has infested you, or you are finally and actually and once and for all egotistical—I mean, it happens to some people, right?  Why not you, why not me?  I think maybe it already happened to me, I think maybe I’m lost inside myself.  Once, when I was in rehab for not being able to stop drinking (the second time) the keepers ushered us outside to play kickball.  A bunch of grown or half-grown people who days or weeks before had been sleeping in our own vomit or living drowsy lives in crack houses were now being ushered outside to play kickball.  It was an unusually hot spring morning and I was a very unhappy man—I wasn’t quite done withdrawing yet and I hated everyone—and regardless of my mood, I was in no physical shape to play kickball.  I was quite overweight and hadn’t been eating anything close to a proper diet for years, in addition to smoking two packs a day and drinking a gallon of gin every two days.  My cardiovascular system was fucked, my vision still wasn’t right from all the drink and withdrawal and lack of proper vitamin absorption—that’s a real side effect of alcoholism, look it up— frankly I was having trouble sitting in a chair straight, and here I was being suddenly expected to play kickball.  Oh and one other thing: the woman I was in love with was in this rehab with me, at the same exact time.  I was head-over-heels for her (whatever passed for my head in those days) and despite my intense and fragile emotional and physical condition, I remained unable to extricate myself from those feelings—and from the macho bullshit that I thought was required of me in front of her.  She’d seen me crying almost endlessly for days since we arrived at the rehab (for reasons even I myself didn’t understand) but out here, on this sun-drenched kickball field, I was afraid I might not impress her with my physical prowess while playing a child’s playground game.  Needless to say, I did not excel that day.  Running to first base made me so winded I had to go out of the game.  I couldn’t coordinate my hands with my eyes to catch a lofty, slow-flying red playground ball.  I laid on the outfield grass and heaved breaths, sobbed for no discernible reason, was an unsolveable mess, and had to go back indoors before everyone else.  I thought I had failed as a man, that she would never want me (turned out she never did, but for reasons other than kickball).  There, then, at a moment in which I was almost completely divorced from my body and the pressures of the regular outside world, I remained unable to understand how others might perceive me, was unable to correctly order what was important from what was trivial and ludicrous, was so set in my mind how I viewed myself that I laid in the outfield grass not worried about why I could literally see my heartbeat in my thumb, but about appearing unmanly.  Damned idiot, always a damned idiot even when I’m just inside my head.  Is this what our lot is, as human, to be stuck in this vacuum tube of a skull and never know who or what we are?  Even now, almost two decades removed from that day on the kickball field and any bottle of any type, I don’t know what kind of a person I am. I have made strides toward goodness, oh I have made major strides, but I don’t know, at my core, what kind of person I am.  Do you?  I spend time being grateful for this wonderful little life I have all the time, and yet daily find myself drifting into needless trifles; how much is that magazine I want? Can that person actually park there?  Maybe I should shave this goatee.  What time is Walking Dead on?  Is that even on on Sundays?  I think it’s Mondays this season.  Do you think my high school teachers remember me?  Maybe I don’t make enough of an impression on people.  Or do I try too hard to make a good impression?  Maybe I’m over-bearing.  I need to work on that, start thinking about it more clearly, with more resolve.  Is that black mold over there?  I don’t know much about black mold, I should look it up.  In endless loops.  All that shit in endless loops and at the end of each day (if you measure your life in days) you are no closer to knowing if you are a good person, a good and true person who is true to yourself and doesn’t hurt other people.  How can you know?  How can you know?  I just got home from visiting my father, who still lives in the house I grew up in, in the rural central part of Pennsylvania—all rolling hills, clusters of trees, right at the foot of the Appalachians in the Cumberland Valley.  The house sits on a neat rectangular acre across the street from an expansive Mennonite farm.  It’s calm and still, and the days pass with mostly silence outdoors, the grass growing and the animals making noises in the brush, a car passing every five minutes, fading into the static as quickly as it came.  Dad has hummingbird feeders set up by the porch and we sit out there and watch them, their wings moving as fast as lightning, flitting to and fro, drinking, drinking, then buzzing off to some other urgent affair.  Occasionally one will rest on the pole that holds their feeders, sitting still for a few moments, its head moving up and down and all around, as if to contemplate the surroundings.  But we know better.  It isn’t contemplating a damned thing.  It’s just guarding its territory waiting to eat again, waiting to reproduce again, getting ready to fly again, just simply waiting to respond to impulses.  It’s a beautiful, adorable little creature, but it is not contemplating shit, and it doesn’t give a damn what you think.  What is an abyss?  Is there an abyss, beyond us?  If when we die, nothing happens, what does it look like?  Feel like?  I’ve opened a portal between this world and the next and it looks just like a big red door, a front door, you know, a house door.  What nonsense.  Christ, everything is nonsense.  How can there be meaning?  There is no meaning.  There can be no meaning.  It’s just atoms and electrons buzzing around, and they certainly do not mean a damned thing.  But can we arrange things just so? John Sloan and the ashcan school.  Now there is meaning.  Beautiful, dense paint thrown up on a canvas and arranged just so, just properly.  But if the electrons don’t mean anything how can we paint meaning?  All I know is The Wake of the Ferry makes me feel something, something primal despite not being primal.  I am not primal.  I am a soft man molded by the modern world.  Oh how I have tried not to be so.  I have labored with gusto to not be pampered by the time and place I was born but I don’t have the guts to do what it takes.  Instead I have allowed myself to be carried away by the world like a cow in a cattle chute—the poor thing like that mole my dog so callously eats—and made soft.  No, I am not primal.  I am secondary, and yet somehow The Wake of the Ferry—paint arranged on canvas—awakens something within me from when I was another species.  From when I grunted.  From when I howled.  It might even come from the abyss.  Holy crap where does it come from.  I sure do like blue skies, clear wide-open blue skies and the wind on my face.  Getting tan.  Getting tan is like taking the outside world into yourself and then shooting it back out.  And all those vitamins and good vibes.  Also I like movies.  I like watching movies in air conditioned rooms while sweat dries on my skin.  I like rice with salt on it, and dogs who smile.  Really, there’s just art.  Immense, wide skies with cumulus clouds to the horizon, the prairie spread out in the foreground.  A poem that makes you tear up, but not really cry.  That toe-tapping song, that movie that makes you feel afraid like you did when you were ten.  Shadows in the corner, a swirling dervish of a dance.  That’s really all there ever really is, just the art and some sort of meaning.  There’s not really a word for the opposite of loneliness, but that’s what I experience, all the time.  Not because there are so many people around me—there are often none.  And it’s not because I don’t feel lonely; that would just be the absence of loneliness.  No, it is the opposite of loneliness, a filling-up of things, a carrying of weight, a total contentedness with the order of things.  I also often feel the desire for time to stop.  I can have sickening longings for the past.  I am not afraid to grow old, nor do I wish to relive past experiences; but I miss eras, phases, periods of my life.  I miss the way your apartment smelled in the summer and I want to smell it again.  I was like a god, those days.  I don’t want you to live in that apartment again.   And then there was that time so many of us lived in like a five block radius of one another, and there were coffee shops and open mic nights and warm summer nights when the noises of different venues mixed on the streets with the smells of coffee beans and rum and cigarette smoke and Liz Claiborne perfume.  I don’t need to live it again.  Good lord, I don’t need to live it again.  Just let’s stop everything and smell it and look at it and grow old in that world, in that place, in that feeling.  Let’s have the rings of Saturn stand still for just an epoch.  Then we can start time again.  I live in the opposite of loneliness and I’d like more of it.  Also I don’t want to die, ever.  moonless dark country nights.  there’s a sound to it.  a cricket sound, a buzzing, a silent sheath.  the sound of the nights of my teenage years, accompanied by the smell of beer, loud talk, and the first Violent Femmes album, the one with Country Death Song.  nowadays I want to take pictures of everything.  I try not to but I do anyway.  I don’t know what the penalty is for allowing a beautiful moment to pass unrecorded but nobody is ever going to levy it upon me.  I wonder about things like the shape of the land, the hills, how much we made to suit our own purposes like roads and drainage and sewage and how much the earth made, how long was it like this, how did it get this way?  eventualities swirl around and around and around, and around yet.  I have very much to say about many things.  mostly I don’t say them.  often I will say two or three sentences but I know it’s more than most people want.  it is just as well.  I’m a prick with my ideas and opinions and there’s no need to spew them out entirely; the big old universe with its Saturn’s rings and open mic nights does not give one fig about what I am saying.  and so on and so on and so on.  dark country nights with their sounds and their memories and time stopping and who couldn’t be lonely in all this immensity, anyway?  it’s all so damned big and careless and spinning with no plan, so I say, so I think, if you really want to know, and the wind blows like a motherfucker and the flags are stretched out at the tops of their poles and we’re all so lonely and the opposite of lonely.  really, there’s just art.  immense, wide skies with cumulus clouds to the horizon, the prairie spread out in the foreground.  a poem that makes you tear up, but not really cry.  that toe-tapping song, that movie that makes you feel afraid like you did when you were ten.  shadows in the corner, a swirling dervish of a dance.  that’s really all there ever really is, just the art and some sort of meaning.

For Benji, Forever Ago

Posted in real life with tags , , , on September 13, 2017 by sethdellinger

I never envisioned it ending that way, Benji.  Not in that small, fluorescent-lit room, on the floor there, by the diagram posters of canine mouths and the end table covered in year-old magazines.  I don’t know how I pictured it, but it wasn’t there.  I’m so happy I was able to be there with you for it though–although truth be told, I’d have liked to have been anywhere else.

So that was how it ended for you.  The culmination of your significant sixteen years of life experience,  all your moves and joys and sadnesses and all the people you knew and everything you smelled–all the stuff that was you drew up into itself and stopped, right then, in that tiny room.

I’ve had thoughts like this before, Benji.  When my grandma died, she was there in a hospital bed (I wasn’t there, I didn’t see her.  I have regret! I have guilt!) surrounded by, I suppose, pillows, blankets, and unending medical gadgets (one of my favorite songwriters put is perfectly in saying that, as we die in hospitals, we are “swathed in inventions”.  How terrible!).  And that is where her story ended, many miles from where it started, after years of toiling away, gasping for it all, forming and nurturing relationships, it petered out right there in that adjustable-back bed, probably drinking through enormous straws.  When it ends, typically, it just fades out, like the last drips through a garden hose, and practically everything you’ve done just blinks out along with you.  We have lots of grandma’s stuff, but the things she thought, or felt, or knew–those stopped right there, swathed in inventions.

It’s difficult for me to imagine that you had a mother, Benji, but I suppose you must have.  A biological mother, of the dog variety.  You were born on an island in Hawaii, which is so, so very far from here.  I’ve typically thought of your story as starting in the animal rescue that Karla found you in when you were about seven months old, but certainly, for you, your story started before then.  I strain to imagine the circumstances of your birth.  Were you born in an alley in a city?  Or as part of a litter that “belonged” to someone, and they gave you away?  Or were you born in a wild part of that tropical paradise, under some sunny palm tree copse, shadow-dappled, to a gorgeous pure-bred Basenji mother who couldn’t take care of you and your nine siblings?  Your genesis will sadly always be hidden from us; it was locked away from us behind the barrier of language.  How terrible, I say!  How terrible.

When someone dies, I picture their life like a long, squiggly line, moving this way and that, to and fro.  Not just geographically, but up and down as fortune favors or frowns on you, as things go good or bad, as you love or hate, are happy or sad, as you move across the globe, or spend all day in the living room, life is long (it aint short, it’s long!) and the line moves all around as you collect all these vivid experiences, and then, suddenly, there’s a big dot where it ends, on the floor next to magazines.

What was it all for, Benji?  Why did you do it all?  Why go through all the immense machinations just to drip out like drops from a hose, like everyone else?  Well, not to be too dramatic, but I gotta tell you, I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to figure out the answer to that question.  Almost everything I’ve written has been an attempt to get to that (I’ve never told anyone this, out of embarrassment, but when I write, I think to myself that I am trying to “crack open the shell of the world and see what’s inside”.  Isn’t that dreadfully pretentious? And now I’ve gone and told everyone), and all my favorite art and media is mostly more sad or deadly serious than most people prefer (my father-in-law and I joke about my predilection for “feel-bad movies”); I am always listening to music and looking for the answer, reading books and looking for the answer, watching films and looking for the answer.  And Benji, I do think I’ve found it, and here’s what I would have told you if I could have, through the barrier of language:

There is legitimately no reason or meaning to life.  Isn’t that awful? But really, it is quite obvious.  How could it not be so?  We are just little squirmy critters scampering over the surface of a fantastic planet.  We are summoned forth from the void by the power of biology, and once summoned, have to complete the maze until the very end.  That’s about it.  Dreadful.

But, Benji, there is good news! In the absence of any “reason” for living from outside of ourselves, we are free to conjure our own.  And that’s what I have really spent all these years trying to figure out.  If there’s no real meaning or reason for all this, what is the right one to create?  And that, too, seems obvious:

Bring joy.  Be joyous.  Spread joy to those around you and find joy for yourself.  We are but squiggly little creatures on this planet just once, and I lied earlier when I said life was long, it’s short, it’s short!  And its hard, my goodness this life we live from beginning to wherever it ends for us is so damn hard, all you can do is try to find some joy, to bring some joy into your house, to spread that large multi-colored burst whenever, wherever you can, as often as you can.  It’s not easy to do, Benji, because life will discourage it, but hey: it’s all we’ve got.

The best news yet, Benji, is that you were terrific at this.  To the last, you smiled, despite all that life had thrown at you.  You smiled your smile and wanted to be right in the middle of the action, all the time, and love us all up, and prance around feeling the carpet or the grass under your paws, angling your head up to the sun like the vaulted Hawaiian king you absolutely were.   So, I say (too little, too late), thank you.  There is never too much joy.  Someday my line will stop at a big dot somewhere, and until I get there, I want to soak up as much of the joy as I can, and I aspire to spread it around like you did.

Joy.  That’s the answer, right Benji?  It has to be.  We can make it be the answer.  Because other than that, there is only one fact in life: it ends.

Days: Fifteen Years Sober

Posted in Memoir with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2017 by sethdellinger

Prologue

There were chandeliers.  I had rarely been around chandeliers, and even then, never so many, never so shiny.  In fact, nearly everything was shiny—the centerpieces, the candle holders, the forks and knives had glints and sparkles.  Light seemed to reflect and refract from everywhere all at once, off of balloons and from under tables, men’s wingtip shoes had tiny stars in them, large wire-rimmed glasses on women’s faces beamed chandelier light into my eyes.  The whole ballroom was like a universe.

I should have expected to be dazzled at the first wedding I ever attended.  I’d seen depictions of weddings in some movies, sure, but being only eight or nine years old, I didn’t have a lot to go on.  I knew there would be a ceremony, and they’d kiss, and then I heard we threw rice at them, oddly enough.  I must have expected there to be a party afterward, but if I did, I certainly had no idea what to expect from it.  And all this shininess—I hadn’t been prepared for that.

My cousins were there—some that I liked and some that I didn’t, but we all kept playing together, regardless.  That’s what you do with cousins when you’re a kid, after all—you play with them no matter how much you like them.  Once the pomp and trope of the adult rituals during the reception began to wear thin for us (how many times does an eight-year-old think it’s interesting to watch two grown-ups kiss? Just because someone tapped their glass?) we found our way to each other and began exploring.  We found an elevator in the lobby that we rode up and down and up and down, getting off on random floors, running to the ends of the halls.  We made a game where you tried to touch the wall at the end of the hall and get back to the elevator before the doors closed.  It wasn’t easy.  We also devised a contest to see who could, when controlling the floor buttons, go longest without the doors opening to let a stranger onto the elevator.  Again and again we were tempted to press the Emergency Stop button, but we never did.  Eventually, an employee caught onto the fact that some kids were playing fast and loose with their elevator and we got yelled at and told to stop, and, feeling like we’d just been dressed down by a Supreme Court justice, we ran out of the elevator, through the lobby, and back into the ballroom.

We played under vacant tables.  We made forts under there by using spare tablecloths and draping them over the chairs.  We moved the large potted plants out a few feet from the walls and hid behind them until grown-ups gave us weird looks.  We took M&Ms out of our gift baskets and threw them long distances into each other’s mouths.  By and large, nobody was watching us.  The adults were having a grand old time and we were left to play, to run around.  It was a unique environment for us.  Dressed in our little spiffy clothes—suspenders, skirts, ties—we felt like miniature grown-ups, doing our kid things under the shiny lights.

Occasionally, the action in the grown-up world would halt briefly while they did another of their inexplicable rituals—shoving cake at each other, somebody’s dad dancing with somebody else, and on and on.  At one point, everyone stopped what they were doing for the throwing of the bouquet, which did not sound remotely interesting to me, but my cousins ran to the crowd to watch.  I was thirsty and a little tired, so I made my way back to my family’s table to regroup and hydrate.

Nobody was there, as they were off watching something happen to a bouquet.  I pulled myself up to the table, the empty food plates still scattered around, and my mother’s purse hanging on the side of her chair, and more M&Ms in clear mason jars.  I found my Sprite and gulped it down.  It was nice to have a moment alone.  Then my eye fell upon it: the champagne flute.  Full, bubbles creeping up the sides, mysterious presences.  I glanced around and verified I was unwatched.  I took the glass, using both hands to steady it, and brought it to my lips, surprised by the blast of carbon dioxide as the carbonation hit my nose.  I barely tasted anything as I downed the beverage in one quick movement.  I sat back in my chair, looked around myself again to see if I had been observed.  In a moment, the warmth hit my stomach.  A smile crept at my lips.

 

Days of Nothing

 

It had been a hot summer. Summers are always hot, and Pennsylvania summers get that special kind of humidity working for them, but this summer had just been a rainforest ordeal. We spent every day with a thin sheen of sweat on us almost all the time, even indoors, even in the dark in the basement. It was a summer of Sloe Gin Fizzes, chain-smoking Newports, sitting on the front porch.  It was a stoop, really, but we called it a porch, although you entered through the side door, not the front.

I was staying quite suddenly and unexpectedly with two of my friends who were renting a house in the middle of the Pennsylvania countryside. And I mean Countryside. At least a 20-minute drive from where anyone might consider civilization. The view from that front porch was actual and real rolling Pennsylvania Hills, green as Ireland, constantly sun-dappled, you could see the shadows of clouds as they passed overhead, rolling down the hills like boulders. Cows and sheep on the periphery, small tree outcroppings dotting the very tops of the horizons. I make it sound kind of lovely, but in fact, it was a pretty awful time for everybody.

See, if you are from Pennsylvania, it would mean something if I told you this was in Perry County, and really far out in the middle of Perry County. How these friends rented the house, how they found it, I’ll never know. But there I found myself, immediately after giving up on a semester of college, literally walking away from classes that were over three-quarters of the way done, because I couldn’t stop drinking long enough to wake up in the morning, or do homework or even read Mark Twain books. I simply threw in the towel, and after spending a couple weeks tooling around campus aimlessly, I decided to just jump ship entirely, threw what little belongings I had into the back of my 1983 Ford Escort, and drove an hour from my college out into the middle of the rolling god-damned Hills. I did this in order to spend the summer with two people who were likewise as troubled as I was, but in different ways, and we were miserable as hell together. We’d spend entire mornings out in front of the house with a two-by-four, swatting at the huge bumble bees as they flew past us, drinking 20 ounce cans of Busch beer, trying to kill as many of those bees as we could, for no reason other than there was nothing else to do. We’d sit on our plastic lawn chairs on that porch, with our view of the field, secretly hoping that it was manure spreading day, just so that there was something to look at, something to talk about, something to complain about other than the heat and the damn bees.

We spent our nights inside, in the dark basement, lit only by multiple strings of Christmas lights, the smell of must and tobacco smoke, no television, no stereo. Just imbibing and talking, and sometimes in full silence. I spent the whole summer reading one issue of Guitar World magazine, articles I didn’t even understand, once everybody else was asleep, reading these damn guitar articles in the almost total darkness, falling asleep on a dust-covered couch. It was terrible and wonderful.

One morning, as we were sitting on our stoop smoking our cigarettes watching the distant rolling hills as though something might erupt from them, an Amish boy strolled past on the street in front of our yard, walking his ancient bike beside him. He stood and looked at us, as though he were seeing something for the very first time, some true curiosity. Thinking we were some sort of cultural emissaries, we approached him and struck up a conversation. I can’t remember now what was said between us, what inane questions we must have asked in the name of science, but after a 20-minute conversation, he went his way and we went back to the stoop, thinking we had just crossed some cultural divide. I can’t be sure what we said, but I know who I was back then, so I know I was an asshole.

**********************************************************************

 

In my early twenties there was a short time period when I stayed with my mother in a small apartment she was renting in the small Pennsylvania town of Dillsburg. This was during a time when she went on frequent extended trips for her job, so even though it was a place where I wasn’t paying any rent, I would find myself with my own apartment for a couple days at a time, here and there. Living the kind of life I was living then, which is to say, mildly indigent, alone time was a fairly sacrosanct rarity. On these times when she was gone, I would wake up on the couch, still mildly dizzy from my stupor the night before, find some water to drink, and commence sitting there, absorbing cable television, mixing large amounts of Diet Coke with larger amounts of cheap gin, chainsmoking generic menthol light cigarettes until the whole room was suffused with a haze as if it were packing material. Somehow having that apartment to myself, and enough booze and cigarettes and food I hadn’t paid for to last me through a couple days, felt like I had a luxury a room on a cruise liner. I would crank up the air-conditioning, raid her collection of compact discs, listen to Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole” over and over again at an incredibly high volume. One such night, after a lengthy day of solo debauchery, I found myself inexplicably out in the parking lot of the apartment complex, wandering aimlessly, smoking my cigarette with a gin and Coke in a supersize McDonald’s cup. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly I heard from behind me someone yell my name. It took me awhile to realize what I was witnessing, but it was one of my more lengthy roommates from college, suddenly here in this parking lot, 45 minutes from the town we went to school in. At this point, I must have been out of college for about two years and hadn’t heard from him since (this is pre-Facebook and even pre-MySpace). I couldn’t believe my eyes! After getting over both of our initial confusions, I learned that not only did he live in the same apartment complex, but he lived with a man that we were also roommates with. The three of us had shared an apartment for about a year in college, and now they were living together and working in the town of Dillsburg, while I was mooching off my mother in the same apartment complex! It was almost too much to handle. Excited for the reunion, we both walked into their apartment, and sure enough, there was the third roommate, and he was just as shocked as us! We spent about half an hour catching up on what we had done since school, and then sat there in a kind of dazed boredom. We had nothing to talk about. It hadn’t been that long ago we were in college, pulling pranks, making silly movies, running all over the town like young people who would never die, would never have a problem in the world. But now just a few years later here we were, clearly at different crossroads. We sat in silence and watched a movie, and then I left and never went back there again.

*******************************************************************

 

I don’t really remember how it happened, but I know for a fact that once, stone drunk, I found myself walking down the Carlisle Pike in the middle of night, just past the 81 North entrance ramp, headed away from Carlisle. I had just past the entrance ramp when I saw a tractor-trailer pulled over on the side of the road, presumably for the driver to sleep there for the night. None of the lights were on and the engine was off. I thought to myself, ‘I could just roll underneath a truck right there and sleep for the night. I could just lay under there, be sheltered from view and the wind, look up at the underside of that trailer, let this drunkenness and tiredness wash over me, and sleep there for the night.’ And I did roll under that truck, and I looked at the underside of it. I put my hands behind my head and stretched out in the gravel parking lot. I laid there for a little while, I have no idea how long, but even in my drunken stupor, and as low as I was in every aspect of life at that moment, even I knew this was a bad idea. I rolled back out and kept on walking, and I have no idea where I went.

*********************************************************************

 

Time is a sad, dense fog over a sea, and places are lighted buoys.  The people?  I don’t know, maybe they’re boats, or fishes.  The days stretch out like dreams in a desert.

 

Days of Something

 

Just a few months after getting sober, I found myself living back in Pennsylvania, after a short stint in New Jersey.  I had moved in with a friend of mine who had a spare bedroom. I got my old job back, the same job cooking greasy diner food for a company that kept giving me chances.  I would come home everyday and see some of my friends there, hanging around this house I had moved into. Sometimes playing music, or fiddling with the communal telescope, or playing board games.   A few weeks into this living arrangement, I decided that I was going to go out that night by myself.  I ended up going to a movie, “Million Dollar Baby”, and it was a good movie, I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I’ll start watching good movies.’  I walked out of the theater, and it was a late showing, and it was winter, so it was dark and frigid everywhere, and I was the only one in the parking lot, and it suddenly dawned on me that I could do anything I wanted. I wasn’t a slave to anything like I had been before. Nothing drove me to a bar or a convenience store to get a fix. Nothing told me I had to be somewhere that I could fall asleep anytime soon. I didn’t have to work in the morning. I didn’t have anybody who knew where I was or was expecting me somewhere. I walked across the frigid parking lot to the adjacent Walmart, bought a Butterfinger candy bar and a Red Bull, walked back to my car, and drove into the countryside, smoking cigarettes, laughing my ass off at freedom.

 

********************************************************************

 

Philadelphia is a great city, but there’s nothing special about it in the winter. It becomes winter just like every place else becomes the winter: slowly, and then all at once. My first winter in the city was also the first winter I’d spent anywhere without a car. During the summer I had learned to get around by riding my bike and walking, and was just getting pretty good at it when the gradual winter hit all of a sudden. It was cold and it was windy, but didn’t snow for the first few months, and then one day, a day that I also happened to have off work, the sky opened up and dumped down about eight inches. It was a very different experience than my previous winters elsewhere, where you might go outside and walk around, do some shoveling, maybe go see a few of the local landmarks covered in the fluffy cliches. In a densely packed urban area that stretches out for miles and miles in any direction, and where local landmarks are a dime a dozen but breathtaking beauty might be a little scarce, I wasn’t sure exactly what to do with myself, other than sit on my couch and watch Netflix. Eventually I decided to just bundle up, put on some heavy shoes (since I never really am in the habit of keeping boots around) and venture out into the snow and see what happened. I started walking through the streets of my South Philly neighborhood, unplowed, unshoveled, the houses squished up against each other like sandwich bread, snow building up in the trashy pedestrian alleys between them, choking the tops of open the trash cans, pawprints sometimes the only sign anyone had been down a sidewalk.  And I kept walking and walking, taking note how it was different than my previous experience, and also ways in which it was similar, compare and contrast, compare and contrast, that is essentially how I Live every moment of my life. One experience must always be similar or different from previous ones; otherwise, how do you measure anything?  Eventually the neighborhood started to change as I kept walking, buildings got farther apart, the roads got wider, the streets were starting to be plowed, cars started moving around, the city seemed to wake up. I started passing people on the street and there was an air of conviviality, of shared experience. Everyone was saying hello, commenting on the snow, and it wasn’t just what people were saying, but the attitude, the feeling, like we were all finally together, not that we were undergoing any major hardship, but just that the presence of something so different, something so sudden, almost held us together like a web. Connection.  Eventually I realized I was closer to Independence Mall, which is the cluster of extremely significant historical sites in the city, than I was to home, so I just kept on walking. I arrived behind Independence Hall probably an hour and a half after leaving my house, still trudging through almost a foot of snow, surprised to see that there were a few people milling around, but only a few, much less than the hundreds and hundreds that crammed into this park in the summer months. I circled the building, taking note of what the roof looked like covered in snow, imagining it would have looked the same to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson when it snowed in the late 1700s. I crossed Chestnut Street, which is directly in front of Independence Hall, my feet not quite hitting the cobblestones, but still feeling the unevenness of the walk, as the snow impacted into the cracks around the cobblestones, as it surely has done to other foot travelers for centuries. I trudged across the open space in front of Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell to my left, taking note that it was still open, the Park Service still there and operating, but I didn’t see a soul in line to see the famed bell. I kept on going, heading towards the visitor center, with its bright glass interiors, newly built restrooms, shiny gift shop and concession stand. I often used to stop at the visitor center in the summer, as I was riding my bike around the city, for its quick and easy access to a restroom and bottled water.  As I swung open the heavy glass and stainless steel doors, it was clear to me that everyone inside the visitor center was surprised to see me, not because of anything about me, but simply because I was a human being. I was literally the only non-employee in this entire visitor center. It’s amazing what snow does to history tourism. Despite the fact that it was winter and snowing, I was sweating greatly, and was glad of the opportunity to take my coat off, breathe a little bit, stomp the snow out of every crease and crevice. I was thirsty and hungry, as I didn’t leave the house with the intention to walk halfway across the city, so I went straight to the concession stand, got me a bottle of water, a hot coffee, and some sort of breakfast sandwich.  I sat alone in the bright, metal cafeteria, my belly growing content as I fed it.  I took note that outside, it had begun snowing again, and heavier this time.  It was quiet in the visitor center.  I was far from home.

 

**********************************************************************

 

This day started very early. I woke up around 4am not knowing what I was going to do with the day, but knowing that I wanted to wake up early enough to have a really thorough day, if you know what I mean. I was living by myself in Erie Pennsylvania, in an apartment, one bedroom, on the second level of an old house that was nearing dilapidation, but still teetering on the edge of respectability. It was smack-dab in the middle of summer, and waking up at 4am, the whole apartment was already laden with a heat, an oppressive second floor apartment kind of heat; a thin layer of sweat somehow on everything you looked at. I rolled out of bed, made myself a latte on my proudly-acquired home espresso machine, and set about pondering what to do with such a lengthy, summery kind of day all to myself.  I took a long, overly hot shower while the local morning news played on the television which I had crammed into my tiny bathroom. I stayed in the shower for the whole newscast, mind mostly blank. After the shower, while air drying mostly to cool off, I randomly selected a DVD from my bloated collection, and came up with “The 40 Year Old Virgin”, a movie that I don’t know how it ended up in my collection and no longer resides there, but at the time, a mindless comedy seemed just the ticket. I laid on my couch and let the Steve Carell comedy wash over me. Having gotten up so early that an immense amount of day still laid stretched out before me, even after my lengthy ablutions. What to do? Living by one’s self for so long, and so far from everyone you know, turns days and 31316_1458245861882_8379455_nmornings into quiet studies of one’s inner mechanics, and if you linger too long without plans, your cogs and belts begin to make a lot of noise. Suddenly it hit me: Niagara Falls. I’d been living relatively close to Niagara Falls for almost a year at this point, and it was always something bouncing around the periphery of what I wanted to do, but I never quite made it there, never quite made that my actual plan. Almost the moment that it struck me, I bounded off the couch, went to my computer to MapQuest the directions, threw on some clothes and some essentials into a backpack, and I was out the door.  I don’t remember much about the drive, although certainly there had to be a drive. It was close but not incredibly close, probably something like an hour and 15 minutes. A decent trip, but then again, much closer than almost anyone else in the world lives to such landmark. I remember having trouble figuring out where to park when I got close to it, the town itself surrounding it not exactly being incredibly helpful with instructions.  Finally I did get my car parked, and walked across a large grassy mall, the sound of the falls quite distinct, just like you expect the sound of Niagara Falls to be: thunderous, droning, like a white noise that comes from within.  I remember hearing the falls, I remember a large grassy area you had to walk across to get to it, but I don’t remember actually arriving at the falls.  In fact, the order of what I did that day and the specifics of how I did it, are lost in the labyrinth of my brain. I did the touristy things, I rode the boat, I walked up and down the path alongside the falls, I wore the poncho they provide you. I took selfies on the boat, all by myself, surrounded by revelers and families and church groups. After doing the requisite attractions, I found myself walking around the grounds, reading the historical markers, interpreting the interpretive maps. I noticed that there was a small landmass called Goat Island, out of the middle of the river, one of the features that gives the Falls that look, where it is divided occasionally, not one big solid Falls. It was accessible quite easily via a pedestrian bridge across the river, so I went out there, reading the Wikipedia entry on my phone as I went, the long and somewhat interesting history of the island, its ownership and various names. I arrived on the island to find a sweltering patch of grass, the heat dense with liquid, the roar of the falls now like a white noise outside myself, like a curtain descending. The island itself was no larger than a small park, and trees lined the northern edge, so that one couldn’t actually see the land fall away at the end.  I had the island entirely to myself. Of course the only thing to do on an island like that is to walk toward the edge. Walking through the grass I was assaulted by bugs everywhere, insects nipping at my legs, bouncing off my knees like miniature Kamikazes. The closer and closer I got to the river, the more amazed I was that there were no protections of any kind in place. One expects to find some sort of railing here, some warning signs, maybe even Park Rangers or something. But no, the island just walks right up to the river, and right up to the falls, anyone with dark designs would be in no way dissuaded.  The design of the island makes it challenging to walk right up to the falls, but instead it is very easy to sit at a clearing about twenty yards away from the actual precipice. I took my backpack off and sat in the grass, and looked out across the Niagara River, just beginning to get a real good head of steam up, just beginning to get its little whitecaps and wavelets, the water not knowing it was about to fly.  The heat washed over me, the insect buzzing began to mesh with the white noise of the falls, it all became a hot buzzing constant, I laid my head on the grass and sunk in, sunk down into the dirt, I was so far from home, and for a moment, I had no idea where I was, or maybe even who I was.

 

********************************************************************

“Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your hometown
Waiting for something or someone to show you the way.

Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find, ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run. You missed the starting gun!”

‘Time’, by Pink Floyd

 

Days of Everything

 

It was a cold night, but not too cold, which was fortunate, because we had to park very far away from the arena. I unbuckled Boy from his car seat and heaved him into the air, bringing him next to my cheek to give him a kiss in the crisp evening air. “This soccer game?” He asked. “Yes,” I told him. “This is the big building I told you about.” I sat him down and stuck out my hand for him to grab, as we strolled quickly through the immense parking lot together. He had lots of questions. He kept calling it football, which was interesting, I thought, since most of the world referred to soccer as football, but he couldn’t possibly know that, could he? Most of his questions weren’t really about the sport we were about to go watch, but the building it was in. How could a building be so big that you could play soccer inside of it? How tall was it, was it taller than the telephone poles? Taller than our house? Will there be snacks? Soft pretzels? I’ve become accustomed to the constant barrage of questions at this point, pulling from deep within me a patience I honestly did not think I possessed.  Not that this patience is without limits—but at any rate, I seem to have more than I thought.  I suspect a toddler will prove this to be true of most anyone.

I was surprised by the patience he displayed as we waited in a long line to buy tickets. It seems every day, he is making leaps and bounds, growing in things like patience, understanding, and empathy. Which is not to say he’s still not a little ball of emotions that doesn’t know how to act, just maybe a little less so than a few months ago or a year ago. He’s becoming much more of a companion as opposed to a force of nature to wrangle and watch. While for the most part, time with Boy is still all about teaching, there are moments now of truly just being.  And “just being” with a little guy like boy is more magic than I’m accustomed to.

Finally, tickets procured, we entered the concourse, looking for our section. I hadn’t studied the arena map extensively, and had chosen seats in the section on the complete opposite side of the concourse, so we had to walk past countless souvenir stands and snack bars, him wanting desperately to stop at each, and also wanting to enter into each section as we passed, with me constantly trying to tell him that it wasn’t much farther, not much farther. But through it all, he didn’t freak out or melt down or cry, just implored me strongly. Finally we came upon our entrance to the arena, and I picked him up because I knew the stairs were going to be steep and he was probably going to be shocked by the sight of walking into the big room. Carrying him on my side, we entered the arena proper, and although an indoor soccer field lacks the nebulous breathtaking quality of a baseball field, the sudden shock of green and the expanse of a sudden cavernous room had its desired effect on the countencance of Boy, which is to say, it produced a certain amount of awe. After pausing to allow him to soak it in, we climbed up the steep steps, to find our seats. We were all alone in our section, something I had to ask the ticket man to do, in case it did not go very well. Boy was beyond excited to sit here. He was very into his seat, enamored with the idea that the number on it matched  the number on his ticket, and in this enormous room, this seat was his and his alone. He was not restless as I had feared, his eyes trained on the action on the field. I would steal sidelong glances at him, see his eyes glued to the action, his head swiveling as the ball bounced back and forth, his complete concentration and immersion something only possible in the earliest years of life, and during a first exposure to things; the sights and sounds meshing with dawning understanding, realization writ large across his face. He would sometimes stop his concentration to ask questions about the goalies, which he called The Goal Guys, their different colored jerseys causing him no end of confusion. Later, as he was able to again float back into our world, he would watch me for cues whenever the arena sound system would play the tropes of modern sporting events: the “Charge!” song, the “De-Fense!” chant, and on and on. He saw and understood there was an audience participation element and he wanted to learn.  I would raise my fist and yell “Charge!”, glancing over to see him mimic it, his tiny voice bursting forth its own “Charge!”  This moment, especially, nearly crippled me with emotion.

He paid close attention to the game and stayed quite interested for well over an hour and a half when he started to fall asleep on my shoulder. I told him I thought it was time to go, and he protested quite strongly, saying he didn’t want to miss anything. And I kept giving in, saying we could stay, and then he kept falling asleep again, until eventually I picked him up, went up the stairs to the upper concourse, and told him he should get down and walk around and look at all the empty chairs, all the sections without anybody in them. The arena was quite empty, in fact, especially once one got up to the upper reaches. We got to a very high section, a corner section so high up you could almost touch the roof in a few of the spots, and as we emerged into it, it became clear that it had not even been cleaned out or looked at after the preceding weekend’s Motocross event in the arena. Everywhere there was trash, even half-eaten food and some beer cans on their sides. It was an astonishing array of trash and smells to walk into amid what appeared to be an otherwise normal arena. It was immediately too late for me to backtrack and take him out of this section, he was much too interested in the hows or whys this could have happened. I explained as best I could that they assumed they would not sell any tickets in this section for the soccer game, so they must be waiting to clean up from the Motocross. He did not want to walk around the section, but he also didn’t want to leave. I picked him up and we watched the soccer from way high up near the ceiling, looking down on all that old trash and beer cans, until he looked at me and told me he was ready to go home. I felt that I had a companion here, a little guy who I could teach and learn from, who was now going to be interested in things, who was present with me.

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It wasn’t too long ago that we had a little get-together for Boy’s birthday. My Love’s father was there—and let me tell you, I like Love’s father so much it’s nearly criminal–as well as both of my parents and my paternal grandmother. My parents have been divorced for quite a few years, and yet they get along like the best of friends, and there was my dad’s mother, chatting it up with his ex-wife, all while boy ran around and told everyone he loves them all the time, and climbed on everybody, and climbed on me, while I held Loves hand, while the room was full of talk and laughter, while there was warmth everywhere, and everywhere I looked there was future, future, future.

 

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My love and I put on our light spring jackets and walked into the crisp evening. Just the two of us, we interlocked our hands, and headed down the street toward Midtown. It is one of the benefits of living where we do, that usually, given the right weather and the right child care situation, we can walk to some of the places that we like to spend time together. This night it was simple: we were going out to eat. It was one of the last walkable nights of the year, and we knew it. The cold was setting in, soon we would be driving everywhere and stuck inside like prisoners.  So tonight, we knew, was a walking night.

There was a very popular and artsy restaurant in the middle of Midtown, which somehow we still had not made it to. Recently they had started serving a very popular veggie burger, that all of our friends were talking about, and we still hadn’t tried. It had been on our list for weeks.

The thing about taking a somewhat lengthy walk with the person that you love is that it forces conversation you don’t normally have inside the house or perhaps in a moving car. You see things that you don’t normally see, are reminded of things you might only see or think of by yourself, you’re moving at an interesting pace, a different speed. I love holding hands and walking with my love. I love the way her hand feels, I love being connected to her physically in that way, I love being able to look at her face from the side so often. I love being able to point out things, and have her point out things to me, elements of our neighborhood that we only see when we are walking the dog by ourselves.  I love kissing her outside. Many people spend most of their lives in relationships and begin to take things like this for granted, maybe even very early on in life, they assume they will have a companion in this form. Having spent so long single, small things like holding hands, walking down the street, these things never seem anything other than magical to me. My love thrills me.  Literally every single thing about her. It’s electric.

Twenty minutes later we found ourselves the only customers in the artsy eating establishment, it being only five o’clock. We were talking about the art on the wall, the interesting sculptures, the funny man who kept looking at us askance from inside the kitchen. We talked about the interesting ordering system the restaurant used, the haphazard way salt was placed on some of the tables but not others, we talked about our days, we held hands and looked at each other. Sometimes we didn’t say anything and that was lovely in its own way. When you know someone is your true partner, being in their presence is a constant salve.

The food came and it was delicious, just as delicious as everyone says it is was, and it was fantastic to share a meal with someone who shares so many of my worldviews, who has the compassion in the same places I do, love and freedom in the same proportions, to share a meal with a woman who has taught me so much. As I was finishing off my Diet Pepsi, stealing glances at this woman, I kept thinking some of the same thoughts I come back to all the time.  How I waited so long to find her.  How, when I did find her, I couldn’t and still can’t believe how perfect she is.  How my journey to find her wasn’t about me, or even the journey, but it was about her, about us.  How I still learn about her every day and she’s such a delicious mystery.  How she fits so well.  I looked at her as I sat there, finishing my Diet Pepsi, and I said to her the only thing one can say, given the unbearable weight of the world:  I can’t believe you’re finally here.

 

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The days, good or bad, really do just stretch out like deserts, uncountable deserts, again and again and again.  Some, you find, contain nothing: plodding marches under a bored sun.  But sometimes, they are filled up, filled with everything you ever dreamed, brazen neon signs of days, confetti and love love love.  I don’t know about you, but I’m trying to figure out how to keep them filled up.  I want the days of everything, forever.

Have Yourself a Melancholy Christmas

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on December 24, 2016 by sethdellinger

For many years, I have posted the below clip of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to social media around the holidays.  It is far and away my favorite Christmas song.  For the decade-plus that I spent living and mostly being alone, the melancholy twinned with optimism in the song struck a special chord within me.  The song seemed to harken to a nostalgia of lovely, warm, joyous holidays, while acknowledging the fundamental hardship of life–of being alone, of losing track of people, or long, dark, cold winter days and memories that slide through your fingers (please note I refer here solely to the original lyrics made famous in this Judy Garland version, not the bastardized, senselessly happy remakes to come after it).  Today, I played it in the background while passing a lovely lazy day with Karla and I immediately began to choke up; the song was a companion in melancholy with me for so many years, the tears came like a Pavlovian response.  Of course, life is happy beyond my wildest dreams, exquisitely so–but that doesn’t necessarily mean the end of melancholy.  My love, the boy, and our dog make life glorious–but there are still long, dark, cold winter days, and friends I’ve lost touch with, and memories that slide through our fingers like the water in the swimming pool on Parsonage Street when my sister saved me from drowning when I was six years old.  Someday soon, we all will be together–if the fates allow.  Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.

Merry Christmas everybody!  Life truly is grand–melancholy is the proof of it!

Snow Angels in the High Grass

Posted in Memoir with tags , , , , , , on December 5, 2014 by sethdellinger

Once, many moons ago, I spent a week living on the couch of some people I barely knew in a small town I had never spent much time in, with too little money and nothing to slow a march of days that seemed to speed by while also being interminably long.  It was September, and each morning and late afternoon a wind would crawl down from the sloping Appalachians and swirl through the wide valley, sifting and reshaping the clouds.  By early afternoon, the sun would begin to set, the lights of distant truck stops making shadows of the nearby hills.

I spent much of the week walking through the unfamiliar neighboorhood, trying to imagine what it would be like to make a life there, behind that fence, in that shed, down that crumbling walkway.  This wasn’t an unusual pursuit, since at the time I was a stranger to adult life everywhere I went, no matter where I laid my head at night.

I had come to this temporary situation after failing to please the last people I had been staying with, and I had come to those folks after failing to please the people before them.  I was now occupying one corner of a dingy living room in a second story efficiency that smelled like dogs despite there being no dogs.  I followed the kind of schedule only the truly underemployed or severely addicted can devise.  Each morning, I would walk to the corner greasy diner that had become my office.  In the evenings I would wander to the pond on the outskirts of town and read. In the evenings I’d sit in the silent dark and write down individual titles to my sleeping dreams from the night before, scribbling details on the insides of book covers and the backs of ATM receipts.

The days came and went like half-remembered tremors.  It got uncharacteristically warm for a few days.  I laid down in the thigh-high grass in a farmer’s field one afternoon and pretended to make a snow angel, but nothing happened.  I remember the buzzing of the insects, and the precise smell, and the feel of the heat on my face which made my outside feel the opposite of my inside, which was dark, frigid, and dying.

It would be interesting, if someone were to make a movie about my life, if they just made it of this single, listless, seamlessly depressing week, leaving the viewer to wonder what could possibly have come before, and be anxious for what was to come after, and then the credits roll, and they never know.  Just leave them with the image of this drunk, solitary, silent 22-year-old, making snow angels in the high grass.

Drawing E.T. at the Kitchen Table

Posted in Memoir with tags , , on June 11, 2014 by sethdellinger

I didn’t want to go to work this morning. Not that I normally dread going to work, or don’t like my job, but this morning for some reason I just really didn’t want to go in. It was an unusual day where I was faced with a few hours in the early morning of being awake, before going to work. And I was sitting in my house, just thinking how much I’d rather be doing other things today, how much I did not want to go do something that, although I don’t hate it, has very little to actually do with me, with who I am or what I like.  Then suddenly I had a memory, a memory I haven’t dwelt in or spent time with for many years now.

It was the morning before I went to school for the first time. The morning before I went to kindergarten.  Obviously, this memory’s not exceptionally clear or vivid, not chockablock full of details. It’s a memory of a moment really, and a feeling.

I’m sitting at the kitchen table, at the old house in Newville, with the paisley wallpaper and the smell of the outdoors and old appliances and corn husks and cigarette smoke.  There’s a feeling of dread. I’d known for days ahead of time that this was coming, but somehow I still thought there would be a way to avoid it, get out of it.

I’m sitting at the kitchen table, and I am drawing on a piece of paper. The picture is of ET, the Extraterrestrial, and there’s a big word balloon, and in it is just repeated the letters E.T., over and over again. This is the sort of thing I did with my days before I was forced to go to school. I drew things, created little moments, characters, got lost in my own universes. Although I was exceptionally young and naïve, and I realize I may be having a revisionist memory, I swear that I knew in that moment at the table that nothing would ever be the same. I wasn’t just being made to go to school for the first time, I wasn’t just losing my golden dreamy life alone with my mother on summer days, I was losing everything, forever.

Although I could be creative for the rest of my life, and get lost in myself, and create universes on my off time, the world was never going to be mine again, not like it had been during those first few years of life. I sat at the kitchen table, feeling a dread and sadness beyond compare, drawing my ET, hoping I was wrong about the inevitability of every damn thing in the world, and I remember begging my mother to let me stay home. I don’t remember what words I used, and I don’t remember what she said back, but obviously there was nothing either of us could do. The tide of adulthood sweeps everybody into its wake. That is what I remembered when I was sitting on my couch this morning, and I swear to God, I almost wept. Then I got up and went to work

Hoffman Film Fest, Day Two

Posted in Hoffman Film Fest with tags , , , , , on February 5, 2014 by sethdellinger

I first saw “Jack Goes Boating” in the dead of winter, when I was living alone in Erie, PA.  I wasn’t just living alone, but far, far from all my family and friends.  I lived there for two years, and for the most part, it was a very solitary existence.

Anyway, like I said, it was the dead of winter.  For some reason, this little unknown arthouse flick was playing in the “dollar” theater, the run-down piss-smelling 6-house theater that literally cost just one dollar to get into.  I’d been waiting withphoto some excitement for the directorial debut of Philip Seymour Hoffman, but I doubted I’d get to see it in Erie, where movies like that typically didn’t play.  I was taken quite aback when it showed up at the dollar theater.

I went to the latest showing possible, on a weeknight, to do my best to avoid other humans.  Frequent readers of my blog will know that I don’t shy away from discussing this aspect of my personality: I love people, but I’d rather they be somewhere else.  I’m often unhappy about this part of myself, but I’m also much happier alone.  So.  Go figure.

I ended up in the theater completely alone.  That movie theater made one dollar off that showing, not counting my enormous Coke Zero.  And the movie that unfurled before me set me ablaze, all alone in that stinky theater at 10 o’clock on a probably Tuesday in the grip of deepest winter.

It’s really just a love story.  On paper, it’s a well-told, dramatic love story about broken people getting together.  But the way Hoffman made that film grabbed something further inside me than the desire to be loved.  The way he played his character and the tone he set for the entire film spoke to me about the deep oceans we all are, the blankness I feel within myself, and the wide gulf that exists between people, even when your connection feels intense.  It spoke to my loneliness, and it made me question my self-imposed isolation, so far from those who loved me.  Although many and arrayed forces conspired to eventually get me to move to Philadelphia (closer to many loved ones but still comfortably far enough away from most of you to say, maybe next month, or if only I lived closer), it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that “Jack Goes Boating” set my mind wandering and wondering if maybe I didn’t need just a little less isolation.

As happened many times when I lived in Erie, I walked out of the movie theater that night to a desolate, nearly-empty, locked-in-ice parking lot, with nobody to talk to about the movie.  I was ok with that.  Most people don’t know how to talk about movies.  But this drive home was a little different.  For this one night, the hole inside of me bothered me.

Please watch this:

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