Sunday, July 23, 2006

Vanishing Act

A piano chimes along the melodic line of a pop song, hammers hitting string in some studio long ago. Though it's approaching 1 in the morning, my wife is sitting at the dining room table, playing gin rummy with her sister, one of her nephews, and her niece. The dogs are milling about. I imagine the confused computations that crunch through their tiny brains. Do they wonder why everyone is still up?

My sister-in-law arrived with her two children and her dog, Gromit, on Thursday. Since then, the weekend has been filled with the kind of minor conflicts that could one day be the fodder for great literature—but only the fodder. I spent much of Friday waiting for work that would never arrive. Friday night was spent fending off the incessant requests of my nephew for another video game until my wife finally offered to float the boy a loan. Our living room has filled with the faint sulfuric aroma added to natural gas. The children have argued over a magenta crayon and the color of the word "magenta" while I attempted—foolishly—to sleep. A plumber we found through our home warranty has checked out our water heater—only to declare that the problem was neither covered by our warranty nor something he could fix after 5 minutes of gazing into a corner of our basement with a flashlight. I spent much of the morning on the phone with someone in India trying to resolve a technical issue with a new piece of networking equipment. I spent much of the afternoon on the telephone with the home warranty people. In between the periods of drool-inducing Muzak, I drove my wife for coffee twice and off to a local discount retailer to drop a fair amount of cash on art supplies intended to keep our niece and nephew occupied, creative, and relatively quiet.

For a few minutes here and there, I've had a little time with the dogs and the barest minimum of time to myself. Now, the office door is closed. Outside, cicadas sing. I long for the impossibility of a hot shower and catch myself fantasizing about Monday when, hopefully, the necessary repairs to our hot water heater will have been made.

But, at this moment, I've managed to vanish from the puppies, my wife, my sister-in-law, my niece, and my nephew. For now, I'm happy with the slightest falsetto ringing out from my stereo and the soothing rhythm of arranging words on a page.


I must admit, of course, that part of my frustration at the day has nothing to do with the myriad small conflicts listed above. Instead, I've been pining for this moment, for the quiet contemplation that comes with writing. I've been longing to steal a few moments for myself and to devote them to a kind of ordering of my world. The knotted back and churning stomach of business is now a memory. The clenched teeth of the uncomfortable anger that children miraculously engender have been replaced by the faintest of smiles. For me, writing, I suppose, truly is therapeutic.

In the past, I've railed against the idea that positing one's own problems (which are seldom as bad as we believe) as fiction or poetry. Yet, that's precisely how I came to poetry (blessed adolescence). I think, ironically, that many of us who are drawn to writing in the first place develop some aptitude because of difficulty communicating. With words, I suppose, there is a measure of control that is so often missing from our everyday lives. If you dislike a sentence or a line, you can simply strike it and the phrase is obliterated. You can labor over such works, varying the tone with the slightest shifts, diffusing your images with the slightest of colors. You can select the sounds that you find most appealing, providing someone, somewhere with a series of pleasing syllables to utter under their voice as they read to themselves in the imagined environ of a cafe, heavy with the scent of morning coffee.


Often, life will intersect and interrupt with what you write. Regardless of whether or not you imagine moments from your own life as the raw material for a collection of poems—many around you may. More, time can be a killjoy. You can stare at your clock and notice that it's creeping past 2 AM or you can keep pushing yourself into the night, just for the sake of those few moments when your sense of self seems to dissolve into the rhythm of the words that appear upon your page. You can find the time somehow. And, if you're anything like me, this may not be healthy.


Today—after my first headache had subsided and before my second started bubbling in the cauldron I sometimes fancy bubbles just beneath my skull, I phoned my father. We had a long, marvelous conversation. I can't remember the details and can only vaguely remember the subjects that we touched upon. It isn't important. What is important, at least for my purposes here, is the way that conversation made me feel.

I was on the phone for almost an hour. Neither one of us really asked anything of the other. We simply listened and told stories about our lives for the past week. I talked about the house, and the problems I'm having. He listened and offered a kindly word of advice.

I didn't mention my novel, which is momentarily stalled in the fifth chapter. He didn't mention any of my writing. Yet, when I think of my father, I think of someone who is almost absurdly supportive of my writing. He, I think, understands that it's important to me. He also encourages me, now and again, with the best advice any writer can receive: sit down and start typing. Still, those incidental mentions of writing have been filling my father's ears for more than a decade now. And, to be frank, there isn't much to show from those years of thinking of myself as a writer or a poet or whatever. Now, I know why.

But what I don't understand is how my father had the wherewithal through all of those years to keep encouraging me simply and bluntly. He never, I suppose, thought that such a path would be easy, but he never, to my mind, has doubted that I could do it.

I think, if you're a writer, you need people like that in your life. You need people who can see how absurdly important writing is to you and can offer those tiny morsels of support without praising you a dog owner would praise a puppy that finally managed to show him that he needed to go outside.

You need people who will allow you a few moments of selfishness each day. You need someone who will understand why you would type for hours just to find those few seconds of quiet joy when the words tumble from your fingertips, and you know, somehow, that they are right.


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