31 July 2016
Recently, Dear Reader, I was deeply honored to have my poem Extrusion selected by Cirque: A Literary Journal for Alaska and the Pacific Northwest for publication in their 14th. Issue, which was released this July. Mighty massive thanks to Editor Sandra Kleven, a savvy, insightful editor and skookum friend.
While I was unable to attend the launch here in Rage City, a dear friend, cohort, and fellow poet, Peter Porco—also featured in this issue of Cirque, I should add— intrepidly elected to read it during the festivities.
A thousand thanks, Peter, you made the plight of that little yard lizard, and our hand in its fate, creep into the minds of all who see the clip, and you do it with sangfroid. My hat’s off to you.
The video can be found on Cirque’s fab facebook page: Cirque Journal; meanwhile, if I can find a way to embed it you know I will.
I’m taking down the version that was featured here. If you’d like to have a read, please surf over to Cirque, where I am surrounded by a convocation of immensely talented poets, authors, and artists. Fully available online, you can also order a copy for a fair price. (I receive naught a penny on sales, folks…just that being a poet, I’ll always dig pages over pixels.)
It somehow feels unnatural, disingenuous even, to leave you without a poem. It is my job, after all. And you’ve come all this way for a sales pitch!?! I think not.
Lately the concept of redemption has been on my mind. You don’t have to look far to find symptoms of rot, apathy, and naked greed in our society, but in the same glance you’ll find countless souls seeking redemption; and so often it is these very souls that display the most remarkable acts of generosity, kindness, and human empathy. This is for those of us on the path of Redemption; may you find what you seek…
—Variant № 8
Redemption is a steel beam
running up your spine.
I recommend a permanent installation
affixed on the outside, a gruesome renovation.
There it can be seen by all, and
with ease polished to a high sheen
To avoid the unsightly tarnish
of blood, shame, and rust.
With hot rivets, hammer the bone-girder
right into your marrow;
Where in cannot become dislodged
by the innate brittleness
Of occasional backsliding and failure.
—Or did you believe the slate wiped clean?
You believed Absolution is final?
No, as with our mistakes
We are interdependent
with our Saviors.
So, strive not to walk too stiffly
beneath your bone-grafted burden.
Bear your penance with some show of dignity,
ignoring the desultory loathing
You will find in those unwilling
to fashion their own soul scaffolding.
Smile when invariably you’re asked why
you walk so strangely, as if
you had a steel beam shoved up your ass?
Just tell them that you have been Redeemed.
~by DC McKenzie
22 June 2016
31 July 2016
UPDATE: This poem was selected for publication! Please see the details below…
11 July 2k15
Greetings, Dear Reader. It seems my earlier optimism regarding signal reacquisition was…a bit hasty. Nevertheless, I am still writing; still nurturing that sacred ember of creative flame which came so perilously close to dying in a cruel wind. And with that thought, I offer you a new poem. This one I dedicate to everyone…for each of us deals with our own measure of misery. And comparing them does a disservice to us all.
It is in the empathy we bring to the suffering of other living beings which is the true measure of our own humanity.
Please go to:
Cirque: A Literary Journal of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest to find this poem.
13 February 2015
Welcome back, Dear Reader, I know it’s been many moons since you’ve heard a word from me. However, it was not for a lack of desire, nor exhaustive attempts on my part, I assure you. It’s hard to get to the point when that point has been stuck in your back for so long it’s getting hard to remember what life was like before the assault. When you are at aphelion, the furthest point from your sun, for so long that ice builds in your beard, pizza delivery is impossible, and makes a lost television remote a really big deal. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The point is that for the last year or so I’ve had Writer’s Block.
“Holy crap!” I can hear you right now, Gentle Reader, “A Year!?! What the hell’s wrong with you, man? What’s the matter with your head? You wrote nothing worthy in a whole year? You must be full of hyperbole, or something else, right?”
To which I reply, in all seriousness, that it was like dancing on a gallows.
I implore you to consider what would happen if you were denied that which fulfills you the most in life…if the magic that drags you out of bed every damn morning suddenly up and poof! disappeared. What would happen if the sweet water of the Rock of Your Life just dried up one day? And left you forever searching for what you knew, rather than for what’s to come. It renders you incomplete.
After enough time something in you breaks. And once broken, whether or not you heal is entirely up to you. No doctor can offer a prognosis, and no treatment exists to cure it. It is a pitiless crucible that must be endured, then patiently recovered from. Yes, yes, very dramatic. But how did it occur?
That’s the question. What could happen that would result in being Blocked that long? The truth requires a candor that remains uncomfortable to share—yet necessary for you to understand—the genesis of the Scourge evolved years ago, along with a nasty case of what my head-doctors call Major Depressive Disorder. And let me tell you, that can fuck you up bad. I nearly committed suicide a number of times, and inevitably wound up in the revolving door of our local version of Arkham Asylum. Called API colloquially, the Alaska Psychiatric Institute is a conundrum of good intention and awful application. I wouldn’t wish that Pest House on my worst enemy. With mandatory stops at a Psych ward in the local hospital a few times for good measure, I’ve slunked my way along the back alleys of Alaska’s burgeoning Insanity Market.
But that’s another story.
Overcoming Writer’s Block is the subject of this, my first post in many years. Most authors vie with the Scourge at least once. Many have written on the subject far more eloquently than I ever will. For instance, Phillip Sidney, author of Astrophel and Stella among other works, wrote,
“Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:
‘Fool!’, said my Muse to me,
‘Look in thy heart and Write.”
A bit of brilliance I’ve never forgotten, even when I write nothing but hopeless shite. David Carr, the Titan of Journalism who recently passed away, was once asked his favorite cure for writer’s block, to which he replied, “Typing”. Hah!
He later elaborated that to, “Keep typing until it turns into writing.”
Which is actually pretty good advice, I have to admit. But nobody ever talks about the grueling work that involves. The aching back, the bleary eyes, and inexorable headaches in my case. The isolation from humanity, endless late nights and ignored phone calls. The malnutrition, and tendency to mainline coffee and various other complicated molecules.
Not to mention the Scourge lurking in wait over by my refrigerator…just waiting for me to give up and try to rest. It waits until I’m wallowing in my failure, then it pounces and with abominably-strong insectile arms, it shakes all the Words right back out of me. Before scuttling away to watch me scream hysterically and sob on the floor. Then miserably start to pull my shit together…again.
So, what was it like living a year with the Scourge? Many friends, of whom a fair number are also writers, have asked with various mixtures of genuine concern, naked curiosity, honest empathy, and even the occasional schadenfreude. Time and again I’ve tried in despair to answer that question without sounding utterly inane, or worse like a condescending prick; and each time I’ve gotten desperately lost attempting to find my way back from that merciless Purgatory. And so it was, three nights ago and later than usual; my epic celebration of the End of the Scourge was still firing on full-auto, catapulting pianos out into the moonlight, as the ceiling kept threatening to come crashing down around my head. It was in the midst of that chaos that I decided to write you a fable, Gentle Reader, the history of an epoch in the life of a poet with writer’s block. As you read a few things will become apparent: This is more than an emotional analogy, it’s also an intimate fête of language, a personal journey back into beloved wordscapes. And a barely edited, first-draft expedition which I am honored you have elected to join me on. Many of you with knowledge of science will notice that I’m playing hideously fast and loose with astrophysics; cooking a sort of galactic gumbo to fit my narrative. I apologize if anyone feels irked, yet I remain unashamed. This is, after all, science-fiction. I suggest you buckle up and enjoy the ride. For this isn’t really an essay, Dear Reader, or even a short story. This is a love note to you, wrapped in a fairy tale. And it really does begin in a galaxy far, far away…
The Lacrimosa of Leonard by DC McKenzie
“We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” ~Henry James
I. On the fear inherent in a five-pound sledgehammer—
Seven billion, thirteen million, four hundred seventy thousand years ago a star of the type we refer to as a supergiant faced a personal crisis such as it had never experienced. Indeed, it had never even suspected that such a thing was possible. The star, whose name was Leonard, had been dwelling peacefully in one of the more fashionable neighborhoods near its galactic center; for billions of years it spun, merrily munching Hydrogen and engaging in its one true calling. You see, Leonard was a poet. I understand your confusion. All stellar bodies are quite shy around such fragile beings as mammals, so it’s not widely known, or accepted, that nearly all stars and their various cousins are artists of one kind or another. And for them it’s a deadly serious vocation, there are no dilettante stellar artists; they literally live for their art. For reasons understood only to them, most stars prefer sculpture. Except for an astral clique including quasars, pulsars and magnetars, who tend toward fabulously intricate music and eclectic performance art. Earth-bound sculptors make do with marble, bronze, car fenders, and other assorted mediums; but that’s only because they’ve never gotten the opportunity to work with thermonuclear plasma. Leonard marched to its own tune however. Poetry and fusion were its only real interests. Of course, being a star, it was heavily into astronomy and astrophysics too. But that’s like saying breakfast cereal is really into milk. For uncounted eons Leonard burned glorious, composing poems of such radical and penetrating pulchritude, of such emotional delicacy that entire galaxies subtly altered their trajectory just to absorb the hissing signals of radiation that make up the stellar language.
Then came the crisis. A rouge planet spun into the vast boundary of the star’s heliosphere. Frozen nearly to its core, the orphan planet nevertheless radiated intense waves and exotic particles of such exquisiteness that Leonard’s imagination immediately fired a series of coronal mass ejections in its equivalent of delighted laughter. It settled into the half-meditative state where it composed drafts of poems.
But something new occurred. Which in itself was cause for immediate, total attention, as new things very rarely happen to stellar bodies…and when something new does occur, it’s seldom for the best. This anomaly was deeply troubling, and sent ripples of agitation billowing across the many thousands of kilometers which comprised the star’s seething photosphere. The fluid, frictionless organic mechanism that had for so long allowed it to weave word-symbols now stuttered and shook. It heaved, then boomed nauseatingly, as if behemoth gears had skewed off of their capstans and now broke teeth, grinding stumps as the ancient apparatus of art came to a lurching halt. This was quickly followed by an entirely new emotion that took a while to sort out; a suffocating feeling which it was astonished to identify as sheer, utter panic. This was expressed in the form of rising storms of arcing loops of magnetic plasma, each many thousands of kilometers high, across the breadth of the star. While below the storm, tendrils of real fear stole over Leonard as it felt the disturbance dig its way deep into the star’s chromosphere. These were emotions that it had never known, not once in its multitudinous millennia of life. Yet, Leonard was not some newly ignited star wobbling in its first orbit. It had been tempered in a legendary conflagration of creation and survived. Struggling fiercely for emotional balance, and control of its rapidly rising rate of hydrogen fusion, a single thought crystalized, Leonard had writer’s block.
Invariably, writers of every stripe can tell horror stories about that dreadful limbo ominously labeled as ‘Writer’s Block’. A more apt name would be Word Purgatory. In its most extreme forms it has driven authors insane, has even spurred some to suicide. In other cases it rams a chisel of havoc into a writer’s life, cleaving from our minds the thumbs of our art. Scattering these precious tools like so much useless, splintered bone and tissue. It erodes the intricate clockwork of creativity, oxidizing meticulous synapse-transistors that take decades of dedication and toil to connect. Writer’s Block is the mental equivalent of having a sociopath break into your house one night with a five-pound sledgehammer who yanks you out of bed and nails your feet to the floor with railroad spikes.
II. The Electron Mutiny— Every Celestial Being dreams. Dreaming is, after all, the Realm of Artists. Although all creatures inhabit the dreaming as a vital part of that state we call being alive, be it a human, a dolphin or a quasar. Regardless of discipline or medium, Dreaming is a second home to any artist. Since the crisis, Leonard invariably dreamt of Words—vivid dreams of the euphoria so similar to fusion, when each word fits effortlessly among the rest; often feeling as if a deity guided it in creation. Yet each time upon waking the ghastly numbness remained. Dreaming became a torture.
Orbit by orbit, forty-seven million years and some change ticked by. Existence becoming more unbearable with each torturous circumgyration, Leonard had gradually spun into an alarmingly erratic trajectory. Concurrently, the star had methodically, and occasionally frantically, fought to reassemble its atomic essence into a semblance of stability; although the thermonuclear reactor which was its secret core had been savaged by the experience. The grueling process of pulling its shit together had metaphorically ripped its fingernails to ragged stumps. But the star at last achieved a measure of its natural harmony once again. Not without serious damage however, for it recognized signs that it was in deep shock.
Leonard found it could not stop unceasingly seeking the familiar flow of word-symbols it had for millennia spun like arcane spells. Though it was utter futility. Exhaustion and a profound loneliness had stolen over Leonard in that millennia, so insidiously that eventually the disease of Depression felt normal, as if life had always been this way.
The epoch passed, a torturous trickle of time, while magnetic storms raged over its agonized photosphere, sending pressure waves into the depths. Unconcerned with its health, Leonard grieved inconsolably at the loss of the Words. Unbeknownst to it, neighboring galaxies sent frantic signals back and forth, enormously concerned at their sibling’s anguish. Yet, the Celestial Congress reluctantly respected Leonard’s desire for solitude. Although its home galaxy in the Virgo Supercluster quietly began collecting the poet’s seven billion year oeuvre; afraid to question their own motives for such an act but doing so anyway. Reaching out to individual stars, solemn pulsars, maniacal quasars, the surly magnetars, even the usually reticent, lonely blackholes, each unique living creation in the vast supercluster was polled. They even took to beseeching far-flung constellations—appealing to the courts of Dark Star monarchs, the super blackholes reigning from the event-horizons of their sovereign galaxies. Finally they sang out to the light-years wide familial stellar nursery where Leonard was ignited so long ago. Lovingly, the librarians scoured the Void for Leonard’s poems. The Supergiant star’s neighbors, however, were engaged in a wholly different ritual. A ceremony we might relate to as a funeral, a mass funeral at that. But we would be woefully off the mark. For this was the most ancient rite in their society. The first of their great Covenant, the primordial Sacrament of Transcendence. As every sentient astral body anywhere near Leonard solemnly, yet paradoxically with an ardent, volatile joy, prepared for the Metamorphosis.
Meanwhile, from pole to pole the constant expansion created in its imminent peril hurled angry waves of plasma out into the universe. Driving inward tornados of unstable mass thousands of kilometers down through the radiation zone into the convection zone. Scattering a sea of photons who had been arduously walking their random way for thousands of years up from infernal depths to swarming skin. During this cycle of expansion and contraction, its first two inner planets were engulfed. A third briefly became a planetary cinder before exploding, the ashes driven out on the raving solar wind. Leonard tried anew to push away the smothering panic which had thus far proven irresistible, making decisions arduous to hang on to. Groping for clarity, it found only confusion. Even as the upheaval continued, sending swelling shockwaves throughout the massive body of the star, the gyres of excited gasses widened, and expanded exponentially as the rate of fusion all through the star surged phenomenally. Oxygen and carbon joined the riot, along with magnesium and neons. Sub-atomic particles flashed into being, and decayed just as fast, wholly surprised by the turn of events. In the ensuing alarm and wretched misery, Leonard’s mind attempted to render reality as it had always known it, receiving instead surreal visions, and hallucinations of torment. Death signals swarmed through the enormous, sentient sphere. Gravity, long its friend and ally, viciously stabbed the star in the back; a betrayal of such disaster that even a Shakespearean play couldn’t properly portray it. In truth, nothing less than a goddamned Greek tragedy could even approach the boundaries of such treachery. A finely-tuned force capable of balancing creation on the head of a quark, gravity now became a brutish troll; radically compressing gases and molecules, steadily squeezing the life out of Leonard like a midnight strangler. Abruptly halting the star’s massive expansion in a thunderclap of energy that blasted away from the star in a furious ring of magnetically charged plasma, moving at a frightening fraction of the speed of the light it had just created.
From the torrential photosphere down to the furnace of Leonard’s core, gravitational collapse rocketed the temperature within the star to lethal limits. The first new iron molecules fused…flowing molten death into its hysterical heart. The virtually instantaneous absorption of energy initiated a rapid collapse, which reheated and restarted the awful process. Atoms continued energetically ejecting electrons. Protons and electrons fused into neutrons…huge masses of neutrinos began their volatile journey across the cosmos. As ever more iron fused into the core, Death cackled like lightning through the fusion reactor of Leonard’s heart.
III. Après moi, le Feu… Time did a strange thing, strange even to a being who is billions of years old. Or rather Leonard noticed that time had been doing this strange thing for, well…that’s the thing about time, isn’t it? The frantic star had no way of knowing just how long time had been crawling along at a fraction of its normal pace. But it was. In its current perspective, it was a fraction of a fraction in observable space/time. Consequently, each and every minuscule reaction, right up to the sum aggregate of catastrophic change that was occurring in the revolution of mass was an intimate part of Leonard’s awareness. It felt each atom disastrously disassembled; and each new one created tear itself into reality. Immense, ballooning dread slithered through Leonard, instinctual, centered in the foundations of its very Self. A mind-gobbling terror that defied description yet begged for one; simply in an attempt to encompass the arrant enormity of what it was experiencing. Had it known, Leonard would have recognized that it was similar to the terror that grips Terran animals frozen before the headlights of a few tons of rocketing Detroit Steel with the unfortunate word Dodge emblazoned on the front of it. An irony which is, if truth be told, not lost on most animals thus doomed; as much as we tell ourselves otherwise. So too, poor Leonard was transfixed; gripped in that pure, primal horror. All the while a lethal internal chain reaction cycled furiously up into a monstrous machine in molecular mockery of the elegant engine the star had been hitherto. Yet, though devoured by fear, a crack of clarity allowed a lightning-strike thought to penetrate the pandemonium: More than Poet, Leonard had been created for this very reason.
It had been inevitable. From the initial collapse of gases that had ignited the star, its Moment of Coalescence, this had been its Fate. What was about to occur had been written into its protons when this Universe banged itself to life. The spreading mutiny of electron exchange was in full-tilt boogie now, and every star is born knowing the outcome of such a calamity. Plagued still by the Word Purgatory that had been the catalyst for this destiny, Leonard profoundly regretted that it would not be able to compose a final poem. Until, from the cloud of its misery and dismay, an epiphany surfaced out of the turmoil: the star understood that this metamorphosis would indeed be its greatest poem ever. The overwhelming fear and panic subsided.
In Extremis, Leonard was able to glimpse a far flung future waiting uncounted billions of orbits from its own place in space/time. It beheld that some of the cosmic particles created in its own metamorphosis would one day be a ghostly part of a fragile, DNA-based life form. A tragic being, but no less beautiful for it, one of teeming millions who would itself be a poet. This poet was doomed to face a similar emotional typhoon at the Loss of Words. A primeval wellspring hidden within the particles of this delicate being would be Leonard’s influence—its eons of experience in the fires of creation would help save the poor creature. Though this being would never know that it was Leonard that had saved it. This knowledge, gained in the agony of implosion, gave such ineffable hope to Leonard that it gladly surrendered. And was immediately engulfed in a euphoric peace.
The now deadly core of iron fused the last remnants of fuel from its wracked body, grown critically dense. It took only a millisecond for the final transmutation—a supernova was born. Leonard was cataclysmically shredded, down to the last atom. As were Leonard’s eleven remaining planets, and their accompanying forty-seven moons. Including one majestic gas giant that died rather impressively, even compared to the devastation happening around it. Every. Thing. Burned. Every comet, asteroid, and planetismal chunk of icy rock hauling ass through space near the fury of Leonard’s undoing. Every molecule, every sub-atomic particle in a staggeringly large amount of surrounding space disintegrated in hideous agony; or was ferociously reforged into the inimitable New. The metamorphosis was brighter than ten billion stars. Light and other exuberant particles expanded in a colossal detonation traveling so savagely that it disrupted space for parsecs. Leonard’s neighbors had braced for it, but many were badly burned and mauled by the supernova. That did little, however, to silence the grand Celestial Choir that erupted throughout the Virgo Supercluster and beyond, as each new voice touched by the fire added to the joy being sung at Leonard’s Transcendence. A grandeur visible to all that dared gaze upon it for millions upon millions of light-years in Space/Time.
Try to imagine sitting on your couch, reading a book quietly, eating a hotdog, shouting at the television, writing that novel, whatever…when suddenly, with just enough warning to paralyze you with nauseating, pant-shitting terror, a smattering of seconds to smell the burning fuse, you transform into an exploding stick of fleshy, human dynamite. Your entire being become the howling rage of high-explosives fulfilling their reason for being. Now imagine your own innumerable atoms, right down to the nuclei, violently ripping themselves apart. Each becoming something fantastically divergent, as the brain-powered meatsack that was you is quite suddenly a cloud of astonished sub-atomic mass, hurtling through space/time; taking along your house and everything in it, including your ex-girlfriend’s rather nonplussed cat, your neighborhood, your city…actually, a better part of the Tectonic Plate you were sitting on mere seconds ago. You and all of that, nothing but a tsunami of exotic radiation careening into eternal Void. This sadly deficient analogy hardly begins to describe the atrocity it was for Leonard’s body; once a star abiding peacefully, now an unspeakable inferno changing all that it touched. Its spirit, however, had discovered a tranquility which it had never known in all of its long millennia. Amidst the galactic conflagration, Time elastically snapped back into its normal, even flow. Leonard, weeping in its first real taste of peace, tumbled out of our universe and knew no more.
I mentioned that this is unedited. Having just immersed yourself in a poet’s daydream, I’d be willing to bet you noticed that it does run on, and on…I even wrote an epilogue. And that’s why I haven’t signed off. What say you? Would you like to try the epilogue on for fun? Or shall we leave Leonard at peace with the Void? In sharing this rough-hewn labor of love I hope to open a dialog with you about how Writer’s Block may have effected you, now or in the past? Please feel free to share to your heart’s content. As William Carlos Williams wrote in Tract, “…Or do you think you can shut grief in? What—from us? We who have perhaps nothing to lose? Share with us Share with us—it will be money in your pockets. Go now I think you are ready.”
…Finally, I offer my sincere thanks to you, Dear Reader. This odd, little corner of the interwebs would be a desert were it not for the oasis of you.
DC McKenzie 13 February 2015
4 September 2k11
“Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it.” ~Vincent van Gogh
“Every where I go, I find a Poet has been there before me.” ~Sigmund Freud
This Journal, though I don’t post often, has been a labor of love; one that constantly calls me back to it…as a lighthouse beckons safe anchorage, or a Siren song amidst the waves, lures a ship to founder on the rocks.
My desire has been to create a haven of hope and empathy in the darkness of digital void.
And to that high-reaching aim I occasionally fail utterly; however, sometimes the right poem will find the right person. It changes how they perceive themselves, and the very world around them, both subtly and profoundly. When that happens it is among the most satisfying experiences for any poet—one that leaves us feeling deeply grateful for the opportunity to peer beyond the Veil of Life and share what we have found.
As a Poet, speaking to the soul of another human being is far more than a calling: it is an honor, a privilege, and I truly feel it is also a responsibility to emblazon our existence rather than cast shadows upon it. This is what we poets live for: not fame, nor glory, nor riches. But to touch the hearts of others, and perhaps help them find a path through this life.
This poem is dedicated here to a friend who has been a brilliant inspiration to me. She is a person who gives all of herself to help others find their creative voice. Friend, confidant, editor, and a gentle yet firm goad to keep working, keep digging for my truth. In so many ways she has helped bring out the best in me, as I deal with physical disability, and mental illness, all the while forging ahead as a poet. For that, I will be grateful to the end of my days. Here then is a poem she loves. I would also like to thank Bruce Farnsworth; an old friend who is both a gifted poet, and insightful editor. A true Wordsmith, Bruce cleaved this poem with one inspired strike into a work of beauty that I can be proud to offer to you.
It is also a poem based upon true events in my life. Parts of it may be disturbing to you, Dear Reader…but so is life.
I wrote it in the glare of unflinching honesty. I wrote it with the dream that those who also suffer from the terrible isolation and pain that comes with disability may find some peace, and freedom from despair.
Rehabilitation Ward II: Jose
Nurse Practitioner of the Dayshift,
Jose told the story of He versus Car.
His trauma was a debilitating hit and run:
They put cables and long screws in his head.
They put needles in his arms,
wires on his chest, and a tube in his penis.
Matter of factly, Jose said that he could hardly move.
Sunlight inundated room 718
of Jackson Memorial Hospital—
illuminated every flinching detail
lit every swarming corner
where things that eat pain lurk in the daytime.
Jose stood, stripping the bed of its foulness.
Washed in morning light, his golden-caramel face
was solemnly composed. He spoke
as he worked, glancing across to me
occasionally, where I fidgeted
uneasy in my wheelchair.
(when I stop paying attention to them)
constantly seek the scar where beneath tight,
fragile stitches, rough against my fingers,
they burned out a tiny piece of my brain;
the brainskin where they grafted a piece of someone
who, having died, donated to me a priceless gift.
his too shrewd eyes lighting upon me,
measuring with care, Jose picked up the thread
of his story. He spoke of how he hated
the Asian Man washing his ass and jewels
after an enema. He spoke of walking at last:
with the long screws still in his head;
of shuddering down a cold hall, the cables snaking
away beside him; the tube trailing from his penis
and the iv pole straggling next to him,
small wheels squeaking.
of walking alone to the bathroom one night
of how he fell to the floor,
bouncing hard, bouncing halo
of screws and shocking pain.
Jose said, “The key to running
is to have the will to keep walking.”
He spoke then of lying on the floor
with iv pole askew, its precious cargo scattered.
Jose’s hands, everworking, paused.
His eyes—hard, black marbles
glazed over with distant memory.
He spoke of the hated Asian Man
lifting him gentle from the floor.
How he wept.
21 April 2k10
Tonight my friend is in the hospital. He is dying. Yet, lingering in a vegetative state, many would say he is already gone. His heart beats, a machine fills his lungs like a bellows, another machine regulates his medication, and monitors his vital signs, however his mind is…disconnected. He is dying. It was an accident, one that could have been avoided, except that he was drunk, which is suspected of being a contributing factor. In truth it could happen to any of us: while walking home, he slipped on a treacherous remnant of winter ice and fell on his head. In happens in the blink of an eye: One moment my friend was making his way through this life, the next moment he was clinging to that life.
And though this is terrible in itself, the truth of this is far more tragic. The truth is that we knew he was in crisis. We, his few friends, knew he was struggling with depression and alcoholism. Of course, we tried to help, some more than others. Still, we all tried. But he can be difficult to communicate with, brilliant and troubled, often recalcitrant. and…and…and…bullshit, all of it.
The truth is that I had my own problems, my disability, my own acute depression, and when he did reach out to me I avoided his calls. And eventually, my friend stopped calling.
Given that we were both fighting depression, and suicidal ideation, I thought of my friend often. I knew that, like me, he was isolating. That he was breaking beneath the weight of pain and loneliness. I knew that he was self-medicating with alcohol. Nevertheless, I didn’t call him.
For me, alcohol is an issue, mainly because many years ago I also drank…before the brain surgery, before the onset of ‘major depressive disorder’. And back when I drank I invariably turned into an asshole. It took a while for me to wise up, I lost friends, I lost girlfriends, I lost self-respect from my actions while drunk. Seven years ago I quit drinking. I stopped because I finally realized that I did not like the person I was when I drank, that it brought out the worst in me. Luckily, I quit before I became a full-blown alcoholic.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for my friend. He was suffering, and like so many countless souls he self-medicated to dull the pain, and the unspeakable emptiness that depression creates in us. I feel that because of this he became a chronic alcoholic. And I should make it extremely clear that he did not become an asshole when drunk; he was always a good man, even when he was in misery. Still, despite however nice people are, I admit I still have real difficulty dealing with a drunk person. In truth? Perhaps I can’t stand to see what used to be me.
This went on for a few years as he deteriorated. We worried. We all tried to help him, but he wouldn’t have it. He kept slowly self-destructing and it was so painful to see that many of us looked away. To my shame, that is exactly what I did.
The last time he called me, I didn’t answer the phone. I know he was reaching out for help because no one calls that late without a serious reason. I stared at the phone and rationalized that I would call him back the next day, when I was better able to deal with his pain, better able to help him…after all I could barely help myself at the time. So, I didn’t answer the phone. He never called again. And tonight he is dying.
My friend spent day after day living with the belief that he could not escape the wretched cycle. This is what depression does to you. It whispers that you are alone in your despair, that there can be no escape. It is a cancer of the soul.
As he lies alone in the hospital I am drinking, something far worse than alcohol. Tonight, I drink the cup of regret. It tastes of the bitter guilt of trading my own peace of mind for having empathy for a friend who needed help. As I drink this cup, I beg you: learn from my mistake. If there is someone you care for who is suffering do not let them pull away, regardless of how hard they try. Do not give in to the corrosion that eats away at love and empathy. As frightening as confronting depression can be, if you see signs of someone who is in crisis do not be afraid to talk with them, it could save their life. Sometimes people are screaming for help on the inside and yet it’s still so very hard to hear.
He is dying. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Don’t put it off until you find yourself like me, sitting in front of a screen futilely searching for a way to say, “I’m sorry.”
Close Cover Before Striking
My friend Tom walks and talks—
He slouches through the day
the noxious TNT distillate of Depression,
the cloying soulsap rendered from rage:
He has made a bomb of his heart.
The Tombomb works his job and wonders why—
He has built an Anti-Tom device,
it is hidden under an oilcloth against the walls of his chest.
He is surprised every time he finds it
ticktickticking sinister beside the fleshbricks of his ribcage.
Much like finding a landmine in a plate of mashed potatoes,
he is not sure what to do.
The Tombomb loves (screams) and does not remember—
He rocks but does not roll.
Waking to a new day, he finds the old one wired into his heart.
He stands in the bathroom and will not look in the broken mirror.
He shuffles to table, and staring into coffee, toys with the fuse.
She wants to take cover, yet every morning she diffuses him
…red wire…green wire…blue wire…green wire…red wire…
only to find fresh solder sweating from his heart by night.
The Tombomb wishes Things Were Different—
He has seized himself for a hostage.
He sits in the driveway and says, ‘No…No, nothing’s wrong.’
But I can see in his arms that he is holding the Bomb.
His pleas for lightning go unheeded,
as I back slowly away, with
Fumes bleed into the air, which shimmers around him
like a desert mirage, distorting all that he can see.
The Tombomb has a fuse but he cannot find a match.
20 March 2k9
“When the Special Theory of Relativity began to germinate in me, I was visited by all sorts of nervous conflicts…I used to go away for weeks in a state of confusion.”
“We still do not know one thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us.”
On 30 July 1905, Albert Einstein published a paper entitled “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”. Among the many revelations it contained was the mind-shatteringly elegant formula E=MC2, which is now emblazoned on simply everything: coffee mugs, T-shirts, computer screens, posters, and panties. (yeah, they’re out there, much to Albert’s puzzlement and dismay, I’m sure.) Yet, at the time it only caused ripples among physicists…at first. Of course, we soon learned that his work had turned physics right on its egghead, had forever changed how we perceive the very Universe.
On 20 March 1916, Einstein published a paper on his General Theory of Relativity. In short, with that monumental discovery he blew our collective freaking minds. But then again, he’d been doing that since 1905 and by that point we were sort of used to it. He was a physicist become house-hold name; Einstein was the penultimate ‘celebrity scientist’ of the century. (a relatively private man, this never sat well with him.)
As to his overall work on both Special and General Relativity? We could spend hours attempting to explain it to each other; however, unsurprisingly, Einstein himself was incredibly succinct when he said, “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT’S relativity.” Dig it, DaddyO, when he affirmed that all things are relative, he wasn’t kidding.
We also know that Einstein felt strongly about the state of humanity—both writing and speaking eloquently, and with passion, regarding the human condition. Among his words are these: “The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” While the ideas expressed here are not new, many great philosophers and theologians have been quoted similarly. Such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “…morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself…” The important point is that Einstein held these beliefs to be true, he believed that indifference and apathy should be challenged wherever we find such weakness. Especially if it be in our own hearts. And was quoted many times, in many ways, regarding the importance of confronting intolerance, of fostering compassion, both to the individual and to society.
Like his mathematics, his ideas cut through our timid excuses, our half-assed rationalizations; he forces us to face ourselves, to place ourselves either on the sideline or in the fray of confronting hate. And then to live with our decisions.
Clearly, Einstein deeply understood the necessity of compassion, the crucial need for empathy if humanity is ever to mature beyond our self-destructive tendencies, or the social paradigms that drive some of us to commit terrible harm upon others. Einstein knew that, like it or not, we are truly all in this life together:
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of the consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
If there were a key to the universe, would you use it? What would such a key unlock? What if there were many keys, as I suspect there must be. There are those who believe that the language of mathematics is a universal key to communication; and to my thinking, communication is the key to deciphering both the Universe and its problem-child we call Humanity. With regard to humans, if communication is a key, then the tumblers of the lock would be empathy.
Leonard Cohen wrote that “Love is the only engine of survival.”
Such breathtaking heresies never fail to fill me with glee.
In this modern world those words are indeed a heresy to many. Others might find them too stickily sugar-spun from seeming naïveté to swallow. After all, it is more complicated than that. Right? Life is too fickle, full of unknowns, with far too many variables to be generalized into one such sentence…besides, it’s dog eat dog out there, survival of the fittest. Right?
Wrong, declares the heretic within. This mess we are in is not all that complicated—
If Love were the default mode trained into every child we raised, how would the world look then?
Famine squats in the belly of the world…killing one human every four seconds.
If a starving person, anywhere, were as important and as necessary to us as our own family, wouldn’t there be fewer hungry people?
Please do not falter before the stupefying logistics required. Would it be difficult? Yes. Nevertheless, our society can manage the task of moving massive tonnages of personnel, equipment, and weaponry halfway across the globe, in a matter of hours, merely to kill people. Lots of people. Logic says that feeding people would not only be feasible, but probably easier.
Our problems are not really that complex, it just feels that way because the suffering of vast populations has been allowed to reach the point of atrocity.
If empathy honestly lives in my heart every day; if it thrives not just when it is easy or convenient, but lives like a resilient dandelion that has grown up through the tiniest crack in a stone, then how could I not change the world around me?
Yet, empathy is empty without action. How can I change such an overarching paradigm if I avoid the places where I know people are suffering?
Though it’s a good start, offering food or a few bucks to a shambling wreck who’s spare-changin’ in a parking lot is just not the same as actually seeking them out. It’s not the same as stopping and offering some (un)common respect along with the help. Or do hard times somehow exempt one from this basic dignity? Too often the humanity of an individual is stripped away in an attempt to help them. And one may never even realize the damage done.
I have stood on a corner more than once, hungry and trading work, or words, for whatever I could scrounge. There I learned this truism: everyone has a story. Everyone has history or herstory; like a snowflake, no two are ever the same. And like that bit of frozen, crystallized water, they are just as fragile. Your life can melt away before you even realize it is falling to the ground, mingling with the other snowflakes into the past.
If Justice was truly the rule of the land—by which I mean justice tempered with empathy, designed to benefit society, rather than to avenge it—instead of rule by blind, inflexible Law, how then would righteously angry, disenfranchised, “minority” (read as non-white) defendants fare in our criminal justice system? For that matter, what about any poor soul who made a mistake, or caught an unlucky break? And what of the mentally ill, the chronically suicidal, the misfits and the outcasts…would they still be jailed and institutionalized for their lack of conformity?
Lady Justice up there holding her scales is not only blindfolded, but she has been viciously interrogated, half-drowned, gagged with duct tape and covered with a black hood; then electrocuted with the bare wires of a car battery, and violated with a nightstick before being released, without a single charge. Only to be pulled over on the way home, made to Assume the Position while leering cops search her body and her car. Finally cited for failure to conform, and dutifully sexually harassed, she was mugged on the way home. Because the cops impounded her car for alleged ‘unpaid parking tickets’ after she wouldn’t put out.
If this offends you, good. That means you’re still human; and I’ve done my job—Empathy in action.
For that which is done to the least of us, is inflicted upon all of us.
Make no mistake, I am not suggesting a utopia. There will always be hardship and crime; there will always occur some random and senseless source of sudden agony.
However, does this sorrow so often have to come from each other?
Who can listen to Bill Withers sing and not feel his anguish and loneliness? So clean, like a razor slice and hauntingly beautiful at the same time. Listen to his song Ain’t No Sunshine, listen to the Twenty-Six I Knows and tell me that you don’t hear your own lost, broken love singing harmony somewhere in there.
And again I ask, if you held a key to the Universe, would you use it?