I swear to you, a New Orleans brass band will heal pretty much anything, especially if you let yourself dance. In another life I would’ve been a trombone player.
I’m in the midst of transformation, in between death and birth, and I’m thinking these things:
Write it – your book, your life – like the guy sings, “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.” That first line. Just ooh, just true. What’s been holding me back? I don’t know. I can’t see the gremlin that has kept this thing from becoming itself, and that’s why the gremlin is so seductive. I can’t quite see it, but I want to see it, just to be sure it’s really there, just to be sure I wasn’t making it all up, so I end up chasing it, and testing it, and imagining what it might look like. But really, there is no gremlin. The chasing, the testing, the imagining, that is the gremlin. So be free. Write it ooh and true. Relax and lean in. Lean into the earth, lean into community, lean into your relationships, lean into love, lean into God, lean into the flow, lean into who you really are, the one who flexes wings of magnificent color and wears green stars above his head like a halo.
You’ve gotten yourself this far by following a certain modality. This modality has now run its course. You are at the funeral, here in New Orleans. At the funerals here they bring out the brass bands and they play, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and the tubas fwomp and the trumpets blang and the trombones whowng, and it’s a beautiful thing. You might cry, but it’s still a beautiful thing. It’s a celebration, my friend! It got you this far, and now you no longer need it. Let it go. And dance. You can finally dance without giving a shit. You are free. You can fall in love again.
So what’s the eulogy? What has this dead modality given you? How should it be honored? We have to honor it now, otherwise you might forget just how much you needed it. If you don’t honor it, you might think it was a mistake, or a distraction, or a dead-end. Which it wasn’t. It was a stepping stone. You couldn’t have gotten here without having been there. So, the eulogy:
I thought I had to do it all alone. It sounds dumb, but I really did, so I kept moving. I saw so much, so many different ways of being – cities, seasons, people. Traveling alone, I sampled all these different ways. I gathered information from the outside. What works? What doesn’t? And then I inured myself. Defense and protection. Will I fuck it all up? Gotta hold it all together. I kept myself from going too deep with anyone. Hiding. I became, at times, a false ascetic in a cave of illusions. I was afraid of losing it all, because somehow I knew I would, so I grasped and grasped and found myself staring at a great blankness leading nowhere. It sounds bleak, but here’s the jewel: if I hadn’t touched all these things I never would have discovered they’re unnecessary. They’re not who I am. They’re not how I want to become. The deprivation, the isolation, the striving, the little self at center, the running, running, running – I had to experience all of it to see that I don’t want any of it anymore. I don’t need it. Enough. No more. But I had to walk in order to sit. I had to make it as difficult as possible to realize that it doesn’t have to be. It can be so easy. I know this to be true. It’s what I learned last month in San Francisco. It is so easy. It is wild and free.
So now what, here in New Orleans? Let the brass band play, I suppose, and dance, dance, dance. You have arrived, at long last. Welcome home, my friend. Love has come. Let it take you where it wants.
A German man named Nikolaus Huhn just contacted me. “You have a kind of relative on the other end of the great waters,” he wrote. Here’s his website. I don’t speak German, but judging from the photograph, I think he might be a genius.
Have you listened today?
Coming up for blog-air here to shout-out Transom.org, the first home of my radio essay and the best resource out there for all things radio. If you want to explore a vast forest of story, and if you want to plant some radio story trees of your own, go to Transom. The folks in Woods Hole, MA are some of the finest human beings I know. Check out this video, and support them however you can.
In other news, I’m just about finished with a second draft of my book. Then, it’s onto the third draft. I won’t have a final manuscript until this spring/summer, and after that it’ll be another 10 months or so before it’s published, so we’re talking winter/spring 2016. In short: don’t hold your breath. We’re getting there, slowly but surely.
*This is the last piece I’ll post of my writing on New York. Back into blog silence for a while. Until next time, happy surfing.
The subway fascinates me. I like how everyone moves in unison without meaning to, in response to the bumps of the car they’re riding. We all get jolted and jerked about in precisely the same manner. We couldn’t perform it better if we’d rehearsed for weeks.
Standing inside the speeding cars, it’s like I’m surfing a long, metal wave. I have to anticipate the movements before they arrive: forward from a sharp brake, or backward from a quick acceleration; side to side; even up and down if it gets really wild. I’ve noticed it’s much easier to keep my balance if I wiggle my hips and bounce from my knees. Keeping still, I’m almost sure to wipeout. No matter how well I surf, though, even if I wiggle, wiping out seems inevitable.
It struck me the other day that the subway system isn’t unlike my mind. There are tons of train lines running this way and that all over the city. These are my thoughts, or different ways of being: joy, paranoia, faith, fear, love, rage. Each train takes me somewhere else. Each train rides differently. I’ve learned which trains get rough at which sections of track, those spots where I’m almost sure to wipe out no matter what. Some trains are slow and gentle. Some are fast, even violent. This one stops at the platform infrequently, and that one comes every five minutes. I’ve learned which trains to avoid altogether, and I’ve learned how to surf the treacherous ones successfully – no wipeouts, that is. It’s a matter of knowing what’s coming when, of executing a timely, prescriptive response. It’s a matter of planting my feet and just dancing through the bumpy ride. And if I can’t keep my balance, it’s a matter of surrendering to the fall. Of letting go. And then, of catching myself and trying again.
I love this metaphor.
Maybe I’m a train line myself. The A train, for Andrew. The A is the 8th Avenue Express. I just looked it up. It runs from the Bronx all the way down the western length of Manhattan, through Brooklyn, out to Queens, and then down to Far Rockaway – the beach and the ocean. Looking at the MTA’s website, I see that the A train crosses almost every other train at some point, some of them several times over: the 1, 2, 3; the J, M, Z; the C and the E; the 4 and the 5; the S shuttle and the airport shuttle; the L; the 7; the B; the D; the F; and the N, Q, R. It even hits the G at one point. Damn. I like the A train.
Everyday, I’m traveling all over the city of New York, intersecting countless other trains filled with countless other humans. As I see them, they’re all rushing to go do whatever it is they do, however it is they do it – the living of their lives and the dying of their deaths. I see them for just a few moments, or sometimes a single snapshot instant, and then they’re gone from me, and I’ll never see them again, and I continue onward, all the way to Far Rockaway and then back up to the Bronx, and then back again, rolling and rolling, surfing and surfing, forever and ever amen.
I’ve been in New York for two months and I’m still new here. How could I ever get old on these streets? I will always be new, even if I stay forever, and I hardly have forever. It’s August now, and hot, and the parks are a good place to sit out the heat. A good place to listen, too. How much can I hear? The jazz quartets in Washington Square Park, for instance: I can never hear the double bass. I can see it plain as day, the man thumping away on the fat strings, but I can never hear the sound. The trumpet isn’t a problem, nor is the sax. I can always hear the trumpet and the sax, and the drums, too. But never the double bass. That double bass makes me wonder: What else am I missing?
There’s a conversation in the air. I am on one side of it, but I’m not sure who’s on the other, or what. I don’t think it matters, because whatever it is, it’s happening. I’m seeing it and hearing it everywhere.
Like the jazz. I sit a lot in Washington Square Park and listen.
Today, there’s a man sleeping in a seated position two benches to my left. His head is lolling against his chest and hanging backward. His is mouth agape. He’s wearing sweatpants rolled up past his knees, and his legs are streaked with scabs where he’s been scratching them. He scratches himself in his half-stupor sleep: his legs, his belly, his chest, his genitals. People stare at him as they pass. They’d probably look away if he were awake, but he’s asleep, so they stare. I, too, am staring.
A man walks by me, looks me in the eyes, and raises his eyebrows. “Smoke?” he says. Another man passes by with a naked blow-up doll cradled under his arm like a bag of groceries. Two Korean women approach me. “Hey, guy,” one says, and hands me a pamphlet on Christianity. “God bless you,” she says, “God bless you.” The pamphlet’s full of evangelical parables, and on the back there’s a long list of trite jokes under the title, “Smiles!” A sampling:
1. Consciousness: That annoying time between naps.
3. Give me ambiguity or give me something else.
6. I let my mind wander but it never came back.
12. If a turtle doesn’t have a shell, is it naked or homeless?
29. Corduroy pillows: They’re making headlines!
I’m actually not sure they’re jokes, come to think of it. I wouldn’t always call consciousness annoying, but it doesn’t seem to be much more than the time between naps, as far as I can tell. That and 29 seem to be quite true. 12 makes me think of hiding under a bridge, and that’s not funny at all. 6 is describing consciousness again. 3 is the dead end of my search for The Answer: contradiction, paradox, futility. I don’t smile reading this list, as its title suggests I should. Actually, I do. That’s what 29 is for. Smiles!
The man sleeping two benches to my left could use a corduroy pillow. Any kind of pillow, really. He’s so itchy. Imagine what that pillow would feel like for him. Or a shower. In his sleep, he’s scratching his crotch, hands under his sweatpants, just going at it. It’s the kind of itching I do whenever I get poison ivy. There always comes a moment when I just can’t take it anymore. When this moment arrives, I rush into a scalding hot shower and tear at my skin, itching like a mad dog. The feeling is orgasmic. I wonder if the sleeping man is experiencing such a feeling now. I doubt it. He just looks miserable.
Feral pigeons fly around us. They’re all flocking to a longhaired man with birdseed. He’s the pigeon messiah and they are his disciples. The birds sit on his lap. They patrol his shoulders and arms, which are spread wide. They crown his head, flapping for balance. The man is generous with his birdseed, dropping handfuls on the ground in front of him where the birds swarm. Some aren’t aggressive enough to get anything. The man sees these meeker birds and brushes the dominant pigeons away to let them eat, and then he gathers up these chosen pigeons, one at a time, and holds them close to his face, kissing them quite aggressively. It is at once beautiful and repulsive, tender and violent.
A male pigeon has hunted down a female right in front of me. His gullet is puffed, shining violet and teal. He drops his head low and parades in front of her. She wants none of it, attempting a quickstep escape, but he cuts her off. He pumps his neck and struts. It looks frantic to me. Desperate. She pitter-patters away again. He follows, pitifully, but he can’t catch her, and then she flies off. His gullet deflates. He raises his head and looks around, perplexed. Then, he, too, flies away – a staccato clapping of wings that sounds like applause. This futile ritual happens several times right in front of me. Once, it seemed like it might actually come to fruition, but then a guy with a ponytail walked right into the middle of it and ruined everything. He had no idea.
Something has stirred the disciples of the pigeon messiah. They all fly away in a ruckus, dozens of bodies adjusting to each other in perfect choreography. They soar right over me, and then circle back, and land at my feet. For a moment they’re all looking at me expectantly, as if I’ve called them or promised them something. I’m a little embarrassed by the attention. People are watching. Soon, though, the birds lose interest. They strut off into a dozen different directions, clucking.
The sleeping man is now itching his left arm. It’s raised in the air, as if he has the answer to the teacher’s question, and he’s running his fingers up and down, up and down. When I was little, I used to hold my arm up like that before bed, and Mom would gently stroke it until I fell asleep. I got too old for her to do this one day, and so I began stroking my arms myself. I would even do it in my sleep, just like the man is doing now. I wonder about his mother. I wonder if she ever used to stroke his arms.
Union Square is my classroom. It’s where I’m learning to let go. This happens in lots of different ways. Sometimes it’s dancing, and sometimes it’s crushing a volleyball high into the night sky without caring what happens.
The volleyball happens four or five nights a week in the plaza alongside 14th Street, camouflaged in plain sight. Some people walk right through the game without ever seeing it. Others see it, though, the ones who are paying attention. And they join, all kinds of people: business men and business women; vagrants and addicts; police officers; NYU students; dancers; lovebirds; tourists. The goal is simple: Keep the ball in the air. Break the record. The record was 111 volleys for a long time, but I heard they just broke it. Now it’s 145. I wasn’t there for it. The highest I’ve ever seen is 83, and that was just about a miracle. I have no idea how they managed 145. It must have absolutely glorious.
They know me by name there, now, or Steven does at least. Steven’s the founder. He has lots of tattoos on his chest (he always takes his shirt off at some point). Then there’s Roy. He yells a lot. There’s Dre, and that little boy who always shows up with his abuela (“We’re not babysitters!” Steven will shout). There’s Mohammed, who gets really cranky when people aren’t playing well, and Speedy, a curly-haired redhead who chases the ball down whenever one of the drunks crushes it. Antonio always crushes the ball, but he’s not one of the drunks. He just loves to crush it. He said it himself once after sending one into the stratosphere: “I love it, man. I love it.” People always get mad when Antonio does that, but he laughs it off. “Man, I’m the manager here,” he’ll say.
We all just want to keep the ball up in the air. As the volleys increase in number, from ten to 20 to 30 and higher, the ball becomes more than just a ball. It’s something else, something much more important. I can hear it in the way everyone counts off the volleys. There’s an escalation, a rising in tone and volume. It says, “If only we can just keep this ball in the air…If only we can just…If only…”
It’s much harder than you might think. Inevitably, someone mishits the ball. Or neighbors miscommunicate. Or Antonio screams, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” and crushes it, as he so loves to do. And so the average round is less than a dozen volleys. But somehow we all stay hopeful. We do what we must in order to keep the morale up. Sometimes that means letting go and just crushing the volleyball, Antonio-style.
I’ve only done it once. It was floating toward me, a perfect pass, but for whatever reason I didn’t care anymore, about the record, about where the ball would end up. I just wanted to hit it as high as I possibly could. So I did, a double-handed upswing blast. It soared, and the circle let out a chorus of shouts – a mix of dismay and delight – and Speedy started running after it. The trajectory wasn’t good; it was sailing toward 14th Street. I’d only ever seen the death of one volleyball before. A taxi. Speedy snags most of the runaways, and sometimes passing strangers help, too. We always cheer when a stranger gets in a volley.
My volleyball reached the apex of its flight and began to fall. It wasn’t going to land in the road. Worse, it was going to land in a crowd of people sitting on the plaza steps. I held my breath, watching the ball gain speed. A direct headshot to an unsuspecting bystander would be really bad, especially from that high up. The ball was zeroing in on a blonde woman in her 30s. She’d already been hit in the back earlier by an errant volley, and she wasn’t happy about it. She’d grabbed the ball and chucked it into 14th Street. That hardly ever happens.
My volleyball crashed into the cement like a meteorite, missing the blonde by inches but destroying a Styrofoam box full of her dinner leftovers. Could’ve been worse. It always seems to work out like this. Nobody gets hurt. The volleyball survives. The game goes on.