Friday, October 17, 2014


The nature of being a teller of (mostly) creative nonfiction tales is that you tend to live in the past. You're behind the curve. Fifteen years, fifteen decades, fifteen minutes—it's all time gone by. You build your work from experiences you or others have already had. There are thoughts and glimmers of the future held in your words, of course, but no actual future action because that leads to speculation and, then (the horror!) fiction. There’s fiction in the past, of course. Every writer has atoms and molecules of fiction in their nonfiction past. You can’t remember every moment of a life's adventure. Instead, you hold onto the essence and the truthful highs and lows as much as you can. Then you patch them together with a measure of fuzzy grace and humor or pathos and grim intent. But all along, you live in the past. You create in the past.

A few nights ago, I was up in the wee hours with an ice pack on my shoulder, numbing that torn joint into submission in the hopes of a few more minutes of sleep. I sat on the sofa, a pained zombie yet again, eyes glazed over, half watching some documentary on Cairo. I saw familiar sights—places I’d visited with a lost friend (lost when we drifted without conflict and discovered we were on different paths in Washington and incompatible ones in life in general):

--The Egyptian Museum where we studied drawers full of animal mummies and gaped at riches from ancient tombs... 

--The twisting streets of the Khan el-Khalili where we drank glasses of cold, pressed strawberries with crushed mint... 

--The Coptic church where the caretakers wept and showed us photos of their priest who had been dispatched to Texas to oversee a flock far from home.

-- And, in all its crumbling, macabre glory, the City of the Dead—Qarafa, or el-Arafa—the massive cemetery sprawling across a swath of southeastern Cairo. 

People live there among the dead—housing is scarce and expensive in the Egyptian capital. Some there claim they took up residence to be closer to their ancestors, but that is a polite fiction to cover the humbling state of poverty. Couples marry there. Children are born there. The old and infirm die there.

My friend and I walked through the cemetery. We spoke to people who live among the dead. They are very much alive. Poor, certainly, with limited options, and very aware of their silent neighbors under the dust, under their homes. Considering Egypt’s historically complex relationship with death and the dead, it didn't feel as strange as I initially expected it to. I have my own complex relationship with the past. In my case, it's mostly contained to what's in my skull or what I type out here late at night. 

I will admit to being haunted by it a lot of the time. I don’t see faces in the darkness, and nothing goes bump in the night. But I feel the past weighing on me. Sometimes it’s a heavy choke chain, reminding me of all the hopes that were held for me (especially those I failed to achieve). The kingdom of "What If?" is a lonely place just a few steps from a locked ward, and it's populated with people we've lost and all the unresolved conflict and unfinished plans left in their wake. 

Sometimes the past just visits in the form of words—neither good nor bad nor studded with guilt. Just words. Some words need to spill out, or you will burst. Some stories—even those that don’t seem to matter to more than a handful of humans with whom you share DNA—need to be shared, and not forgotten.

-- The Christmas rituals with twisted candy cane cookies made in a hot kitchen while “March of the Toy Soldiers” played on a tiny black and white TV on the cookbook shelf.

--The Thanksgiving where the turkey hit the floor when the table leaf was not anchored in place.

--The uncles never known, lost to war, whose stories are still spinning out, decades after their bodies perished.

--The last great road trip you took with your family and all the side trips that so wonderfully and unexpectedly glutted the itinerary. Devil’s Tower! Wall Drug! (Sadly, Wall Drug’s “bowling cat” had died, but we did get our free ice water.)

It really doesn’t matter how mundane or silly or serious. You tell the stories for yourself and you hope you impact at least one other person. You can’t lose the narrative. There is room enough in the world for all your words. All the things you fear might perish with you, if you don’t write them down, if you don’t say them out loud before you, too, leave this fragile planet. 

I cringe when people point out that I retell some of the same stories quite a bit. For me, it’s a way to make sure I don’t forget. Every telling is a rehearsal. Every version gets a little bit better, I hope—or at least a little bit more polished. And it’s a way to make sure I myself don’t vanish into the woodwork. I tell a story, and I am still here. I tell a story, and the people who have left the scene are still here. I can hear their voices, and, in turn, you can hear their history. Right now, I can hear my mother saying, “You’re like your father. You never met a story you couldn’t repeat to death.” True. I will own that.

If I tell you a story you've already heard, just tell me so. I’ll find another one for you. Or, if you prefer, I will remain silent in your pleasant company. I’ll use that time to flip through the yellowing reference cards in my head, seeking something untold to reveal. We all have those cards up there, with our own personal drawer in the great cosmic card catalog. 

In our own way, we are all historians and archaeologists of a deeply personal variety. We just have our own ways of disseminating the results of our fieldwork. My work tends to be ill-cleaned, rough pieces of the past, brought up from the dig without much editing or thoughts of polished presentation. For others, the work is artful or charming. Some are visual, some tangible, some soft on your ear, some hard on your heart. Some breathless with joy, some crushing with grief. 

It’s all around you.

-- A baby quilt with panels embroidered by the hands of three or four generations.

-- Kodak carousels of slides of family vacations and a parade of terrifying hair styles and pastel polyester.

-- Canisters of brittle films of Boy Scout jamborees and holidays in a parade of overstuffed homes.

-- Photo albums that show one grandmother as an adventurous teen with a mischievous grin and another as a vain girl with your same unruly hair, a pocket-emptying love of fashion, and a hint of her future battle with mental illness in her sad smile.

-- Decades of letters inked in Palmer Method script—generations of narrative and love and the commonplace stuff that makes up a life—all flowing through your hands and heart in a cursive river.

It’s everywhere.

All the stories I hold, all the stories you hold…

of your loved ones now gone… 
of the histories you cherish and hate…

of all the commonplace events that make up a life or a family or even a whole civilization.
We all live in our own city of the dead. A rich place in your heart and head where the living mingle with the lost. Carry your stories, be sure to hand them off them to others when you want or need to, and don’t be afraid to retell your stories 

and retell your stories 

and retell your stories

so they are never lost. 

So those lives are never lost.

Truthfully, what I offer materially in this life is next to nothing. No children to carry forward any legacy. No grieving lover who will weep when I, too, am dust. But here in the ether, I hope my immateriality has some value. There are fewer than ten people who read this blog on any regular basis. I don’t count the people who stumble here looking in vain for something strange they sought on a search engine. They are anomalies. But for the 8 or 9 people who come with purpose (or out of gluttony for punishment), the writing and the reading is a shared experience. I give up something personal, and,  in turn, I hope one of you among the handful who come with purpose finds a story you will enjoy or retell somewhere, sometime. And then, that story’s soul can live a little in your own city of the dead.

Some of you already know I suck at poetry. (See I Suck at Poetry: the Autumn is A-Comin' Edition and I Suck at Poetry: the Lydia Deetz Edition.) I've sucked at poetry since I was a child, but that doesn't stop me from trying. Autumn makes me wistful, as does pain and change. And now, I have all three in abundance, and the poetry muse is poking me with a sharp stick. Like my prose out here, my poetry is offered without guarantee or charge, so there is no refund for lousy free verse. That's right—it's free verse. Free verse. Get it? Yeah, I'm a comedian, too.

This is my city of the dead
There is no gate, no lock to turn
Just come inside and sit with me
And brush the dust out of my eyes
I'll tell you what I know

Unfold my hands
And you can see the stories that I hold
Of people who have turned to ash
And others buried deep below

Bones grown smooth 
Will slip through fingers
Cinders blow like drifting sand
So I cling tightly to my words

But if you want
And if you ask
I'll pour them all
Into your hands

These are my travelers, now stilled 
My family and acquaintances
Voices, faces fade and fail
Beneath their stones with timeworn marks

But trace the grooves with fingertips
And call their names out loud 
They'll waken and they'll come to us
And we will greet them as they rise

Grey forms that fill with color now
Alive as you and I

For in this moment
As you read
And as I write the words
They live another hour here

Embraced by curiosity
Made solid by our dreams

See empty halls
And fallow farms
Flood full color
Lush with life

And something grows
You see? 
So vivid

Ripe and full

So come, love
And grab some fruit
Before the story ends

Before the travelers fall to sleep
And everything is dust again

Now everything
Is dust again

This is my city of the dead
And what I have is yours to take
In words, I'm offering you my life
My relics and my memories

All given without question

There are no guarantees of course
(So present no reservations)

Unseen to strangers on the street
My only riches serve, in truth
To fill an empty dowry tomb
Chipped chalices and deep flawed gems

Still, treasure all the same

No invitation needed, friend
Come dip your hand into that well
Embrace a soul that waits for you
Collect your well-worn prize.

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