The War Before The Bores

•December 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

WarBefore1It’s all found there, deep in the winter of 1981–82.

The seeds of my discontent and contrariness, sown by Watergate, religious dogma, and late-20th century consumer culture, watered daily by dystopian prog rock, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Saturday Night Live, from all these and more came the first green shoots of who I am now.

And still fighting the good fight against depression, hopelessness, and bitterness. A mid-December 1981 journal entry spells it out: “Must check a tendency for cynicism I’ve had lately.”

Two weeks earlier I’d noted in the journal: “I’m bored at the moment but have a lot of things shoved back in my mind that I want to bring forward. I’m anticipating Abi’s next letter and the tape she told me about over the phone.”

Our pen pal correspondence was catching fire. And now Abi and I were calling each other.

But the contrast between where I was then, and where I was a year before, weighed heavily on my mind. A Dec. 13, 1981, journal entry explains:

“I awoke this morning with horrible, lonely thoughts about Lakewood, my life there this time last year. I think how it is now, perhaps sterile, quiet … no groups of people talking in the back of the Student Center; I thought of the lonely walk to school … the cold stone face of the building circa 1970 … It was that sort of ‘Death in the Morning’ feeling; of being a half baked human being; of living a small and local life, and of having come nowhere after such a long time.”

Hrm. A long time. As in 22 years old, 265 months, 1,150 weeks, 8,052 days and 193,248 hours. Hey, even 11,594,880 minutes if you really want to get down to it.

Not to belittle a sensitive young man from such a vast distance of time and experience, but to his credit he was starting to use his journal for more than just reporting the mundane facts of the day. Even to the point where there’s no record of how he—I—spent New Year’s Eve 1981.

The first journal entry of 1982 appears on page 11 of the National notebook, on Jan. 2:

“I’ve wafted in and out of depression lately. Abi says I’m honest about it, so I guess I’m okay. I’ve firmly decided that I will meet her in London this summer—late this summer, hopefully for the whole month of August. I don’t think… I think my parents would rather I don’t go; if I don’t go life will be the biggest joke, the most infirm lie … I’ve got the words but not the stories.

After writing letters, exchanging mix-tapes and calling each other long distance, Abi and I made plans to meet. My 1980s “trip to England and France” quickly became a “Summer of 1982 Meet Your Pen Pal in Person” trip.

On Jan. 11, 1982, a Monday, probably after work at SOS Printing, I wrote her a letter, a portion of which read:

“My thoughts have been crazy lately … thinking of titles for pieces I’d like to write. How do you like this one—The War Before The Bores. Notice that it has two meanings: ‘The war that happened before the bores’ existence’ and ‘The war that is now before the bores; the war that the bores now must face.’ That last meaning has to be my favorite. Think about it. I wonder … what makes up a boring person? An egomaniac, a smug family man, an intellectual, a sportscaster? I’ve often thought of myself as boring; God knows I can sure turn my parents off in a second by adding a philosophical twist to everything. I think that as I become older I’m learning to become more interesting, perhaps more tactful in what I say … I thought today: my energy is—has become a secret. I used to jump around and talk loudly, red-faced, sharp-tongued, tireless. Now it is strange. I’m putting physical energy inside. Sometimes I could burst.”

That, I think, was when war broke out.

Because I was beginning to trust Abigail, I sent her some of the sharpest arrows in my quiver. From a Jan. 13, 1982, letter:

“What makes you think that a creative personality cannot also be a destructive personality? Didn’t van Gogh cut off his ear in a fit of quixotic passion over a whore? Didn’t the styled European Gauguin fuck Polynesian women only to suffer fever and madness? Didn’t Hemingway put a shotgun to his forehead? What makes you think that being creative just means being nice? How many alcoholic artists? Faulkner, Jack London, Malcolm Lowry … Perhaps not many but is living not upon the dying? Where does man get the idea that decay is bad? Who is coming and who is going?”

The journal entries of early 1982 mention nothing about working at the print shop, the routines of life on the farm, and little of anything that smacked of my fictional town of Dumond. It was winter and it began to snow—a lot. Student loan statements drifted into the mailbox along with Abi’s letters. I vented my frustration to her:

“I wish the hell they’d leave me alone and go off to fantasize their own capitalistic heaven and have their little middle-class wet dreams. I don’t think highly of those who think highly of money. My belief is that money is a means, not an end. You’d be surprised to learn how many people haven’t figured that out yet. And they wonder why they never win anything.”

More than just being lonely, I craved Abi’s attention, her thoughts, feelings—her voice. On Thursday, Jan. 21, I wrote:

“…I will be a lucky young man if I make it to London this summer. By God I want to be there; I’m willing to jeopardize my present career and family’s opinions of me for the chance to come see you and live the way I’d like to live; see what I’ve never seen; do what I’ve never done…”

I’d just outlined the terms of battle and was sure there’d be a skirmish—whether with the Family Project or my new job at SOS Printing.

“You see,” I wrote to Abi, “where I live and who I associate with in this place—all find it strange that I should just take off overseas to stay with someone I barely know and have never met … and think that I must be just fantasizing about something that I’ll never do; I MUST PROVE THEM WRONG. I MUST PROVE THAT, for my own life, I make my own arrangements, and spend my money as I please. If I do not do this, then I will forever be a victim of small-mindedness, inexperience and lifeless musings about what ‘could have been.’”

Knives out.

I was writing to someone who seemed to understand me and with whom I was … falling in love. So I restated my case. “Yes,” I wrote to Abi, “we are lovers … of the most spiritual, the purest sense.”My beautiful picture

After she’d replied excitedly on Jan. 22, with a belated Christmas card to the Family Project, nearly a foot of snow fell on the Minnetrista farm.

But my mind was months ahead, dreaming of summer in London.

Let’s be wildcats!” I wrote to her. “Let’s experience as much as we can!”

Facing Goliath

•December 12, 2014 • Leave a Comment

“I cannot go in these,” David said to Saul, “Because I am not used to them.”
—1 Samuel 17347px-Osmar_Schindler_David_und_Goliath

Sunday, 5:00 p.m., Nov. 9, 2008: My girlfriend at the time, AJ, and I attended worship service at House of Mercy, then on St. Paul’s Snelling Avenue.

The previous weekend she’d talked me into returning to regular church services after the death of my father that September. I was reluctant. It’d been a long time since I’d crossed the threshold of a Protestant church.

“I still think I’d like to do that,” I wrote in the journal. “The commonsensical approach [AJ] takes to emotions and spirituality is really appealing to me. I’ve never met a woman like her. I’m learning a lot and guess it stands to reason that a 48-year-old numbskull like me isn’t going to change overnight…”

Well, we attended services at House of Mercy throughout that Christmas season.

It resonated with me as in days of old: holding hands with my high school girlfriend Kim during Sunday services at our hometown’s Methodist church.

Sitting next to a loved one in a house of worship brought to the surface powerful feelings, both good and bad.

***

There was a time, however, when Sunday was The Day of Dread.

Facing Goliath 1Roused from bed and forced to wash up, dress up and pile into the family car to make it to church in time—it was always a hassle, whether the grandparents were with us or not. I recall a lot of sharp words, Dad’s scowling face, Mom applying lipstick at the last moment, baby brother absently picking his nose, and me wanting nothing more than to stay at home, head buried in a comic book.

Then there was the sitting. And the standing. Then the sitting. The choir, singing. A prayer, the Gloria Patri, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer. And torture of torture to a young person—the sermon.

As a boy at my maternal grandparents’ United Methodist Church, in Greensburg, Ind. (above left), I was fascinated by the lone red light above the altar. “Dad,” I whispered. “What is that?

“That’s the flame of the Holy Spirit, son.”

Holy Spirit, Holy Ghost … man, why did this all have to be so creepy?

Years later, after we’d moved to Minnesota, I questioned Dad during service at the evangelical church in Navarre. Behind the altar was a tall, realistic-looking wooden crucifix. “That cross—d’you suppose it’s similar to the one Jesus was crucified on?”

I’ll never forget what he said.

“No, son. That was made with hate. This was made with love.”

Again, spooooooooky.

***

After AJ and I broke up in the spring of 2009, I attended House of Mercy one last time.

It was Sunday, June 14. Pastor Russell had asked the previous Sunday if I’d read the liturgy, a passage from Samuel I about David and Goliath.

AJ had left on an international trip, so I was attending the service without her. It felt strange, like missing a limb or something.

Since the beginning of that month I was sliding into a depressive episode that plunged deeper while I was at work on Friday, June 5. I was so shaky and lacking in sleep that my boss told me to go home and take care of myself. The journal tells the rest of the story:

“When I got back to my car, I was awash in tears and anguish. I prayed to my parents, to God, to explain why … why we couldn’t be together. I never felt so ripped up … I had to almost pull the car over, but I made it home … I slept a lot that Friday, cried, slept, and felt I was sinking.”

Eventually I got out of bed. It was the Sunday I was supposed to read the liturgy. I really didn’t want to. Since the service began at 5 p.m., I finally mustered the energy to go.

“I was nervous,” the journal states. “Pastor Russell and I talked before the service” about the breakup and my current mental state. “I said I’d go ahead with it. I decided to take it slowly. Really read the text. Think about what it said to me.”

“[Saul] put a coat of armor on [David] and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them.

‘I cannot go in these,’ he said to Saul, ‘because I am not used to them.’ So he took them off.”

Goliath 2Young David took up his sling, as he used to do as a shepherd, along with five smooth stones from a nearby brook.

Then he went forth to face the giant, Goliath.

“I brought water up with me and didn’t particularly feel nervous because I was so numb from sleeping and being depressed. But the text lifted me up. I felt David’s power and confidence. It was restoring.”

I couldn’t go back to my old way of being.

I was moving into unfamiliar territory.

“I miss my folks, Mom and Dad. I miss AJ. I miss my friends. It has been very isolating and strange lately. My old friends seem weird and disconnected and half the time I don’t know what they’re talking about, nor do I care about what they’re interested in.

Maybe I’m changing. Or not enough.

 

[Top image: Osmar Schindler David und Goliath”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org%5D

Pen Pals (Part 2)

•December 5, 2014 • Leave a Comment

[Last of a two-part post.]

MixTapeLettersI was feeling restless on Junior’s farm.

And, I was quickly becoming an anglophile.

It began after returning from Lakewood Community College that summer of 1980 and continued into the fall of 1981.

“For now—Summer of 1980,” typewritten at the bottom of a sheet of paper with the heading “Tentative Programme for Trip to Britain,” was a list of things I’d need for traveling through England and France for a month, from July 15, 1981, until mid-August of that year.

While at Lakewood, Pat Ciernia, his then-girlfriend Jill Kummel, and I talked about trekking to Australia for God-knows-how-long. When they broke up after the school year, the plan evolved to just me and Pat flying to Britain. After the senior year high school Germany trip, my passport was still valid until 1985. The timing seemed right. We first needed to save up funds.

But then it all fell through. So there I was, on the farm, sending off airmail letters to two new pen pals via the “Harmony” correspondence club out of Brooklyn, NY: Lindsay Clarke in Manchester, and Abigail Bilkus in Glasgow, Scotland.

Just the thought of revisiting this period of my life gives me pause.

You see, what began in mid-October 1981 led to years of letters, postcards, and—in the correspondence with Abi—cassette tapes of conversation and music.

Writing about all that writing seems daunting.

So instead of trying to take in the whole forest, it’s probably best to look at just a tree or two.

***

When the correspondence with Kim Perkins fell through, I quickly redoubled my effort. Milford Shapiro at Harmony sent a list of five pen pal candidates: two guys and three girls. Lindsay and Abi were the last two. Lindsay’s description read: “21 … interests are pop and classical music, astrology, hiking, dramatic clothes, art and reading.” Seemed intriguing.

Abi’s read: “20 year old Caucasian female, a Psych student at Glasgow Univ. and she enjoys playing the piano, theatre, cinema, foreing [sic] travel and food, swimming, a lunatic intellectual, healthy, happy, fit and fun loving.”

A lunatic intellectual. Please, do tell more.

However I wrote to Lindsay first, keeping a Xerox copy of the letter so I could remember what I’d written if and when she replied. It was Wednesday, Oct. 7, 1981. I’d typed it out, two pages, single-spaced:

“I’m living at home with my parents, but hope to have an apartment after New Year … my private aspiration is to become a professional writer, but writing is something I would rather like to keep between myself and friends. I don’t write just to sell, I write to understand and be understood.”

She responded on Oct. 25, in longhand, with a four-page letter, about her favorite music (Beethoven, “I can listen to at any time”) and art (Turner, Rembrandt, and the French Impressionists, but disliking Rossetti, “Every painting has the same woman in it, and she’s got huge too-red lips. I wonder that he never got fed up of her”).

I replied on Nov. 4, also in longhand, at two-and-a-half pages. She wrote in response: “If writing by hand makes you turn out letters which are as warm and friendly as your last, then keep that pen in hand!” Apparently I’d nearly frightened her off with my opening salvo, striking her as “some stern, saturnine critic” who’d cause her to “clam up and never write another word.”

Her honesty was refreshing; it was a great start to a potential new friendship.

Meanwhile, I’d sent a first letter to Abi Bilkus on Monday, Oct. 19, 1981. It was typewritten, again photocopied, coming in at a page and a half. I had to comment on her “lunatic intellectual” statement, saying I felt I’d found a kindred spirit but, joking: “…I like to think that I don’t just read Kierkegaard when the moon is full…”

I asked her about university and whether she’d been to the Scottish Highlands. She wrote back immediately (letter no longer extant), so in longhand I responded on Nov. 3:

“I don’t much like living at home. When I was attending school I enjoyed the independence of prolific drinking and loose, iconoclastic thinking, the ‘free-to-go-as-you-please’ attitude of students out of the parental nest. Do you know that I wrote some of my best prose when I lived away from home? Now I feel like I’m intellectually impotent. I have to fight to spit out a good sentence. …I’d much rather live far, far away from my parents for a while, but that’s financially unfeasible…”

Finally, someone to talk to, honestly, about how I felt under the weight of the Family Project:

“Last night I got into an argument with my father & slammed out of the house for a couple of hours. Before he has told me that we are very similar personalities, and I believe that we are very different, and in the end only divine intervention will tell.”

Unlike the correspondence with Lindsay, which became more polite, friendly and reflective over time, Abi and I fired each other up—frisson right from the start.

“What,” I wrote in that second letter, “would you think if I called you long distance? Just a thought.”

Thirteen days later I responded to her second letter:MixTapeTapes

“…You know what? I wish that I could read to you. I’ve got mountains of things I could read to you. I’d rather read out loud. I’ve got a good reading voice. I’m never running out of things to say, I just run out of energy.”

So Abi took me up on the offer. She suggested we send cassette tapes, play music, talk or read to each other, sometimes with letters enclosed, sometimes not.

By Jan. 1, 1982, we became mix-tape pen pals.

Pen Pals (Part 1)

•November 27, 2014 • 1 Comment

[First of a two-part post.]

We used to write letters. A lot of letters.PenPal1

They arrived in envelopes with handwritten lettering, maybe in colored pen.

Soon I’d be receiving a slew of those blue, tissue-thin, airmail envelopes in the late summer of 1981.

You see, two months before Grandma Adams died, I’d commenced a couple of important things: landing a full-time job, and corresponding with three young women in England.

There’s no mention of the job in the 1981–’82 journal, so I wasn’t sure exactly when I’d started at a print shop just a couple miles from the Family Project farm in Minnetrista. So I’m relying on a Xeroxed copy of one of the first letters I sent to an English girl named Kim Perkins.

It’s dated Thursday, Aug. 6, 1981, sent to an address in Hertsfordshire. I’d decided to respond to her ad in a publication called the “Hermes-Verlag catalog.”

“This past June I graduated from a small two-year community college,” I wrote, totally stretching the truth, “and now I plan to work for a print shop in my hometown.”

Dad was dogging my heels to land a job, that is, if I wanted to keep living at the farm. Likely I was in full agreement, since reaching out to pen pals across the Atlantic meant things must’ve been pretty dull at home.

At the time I was also corresponding with my high school friend Terry Hollingsworth. We talked on the phone, but we also liked to send letters. Writing letters served more as a personal record in that shadowy period between childhood diaries and half-hearted journals. “You know I like the mail,” I wrote to him in an Aug. 19 letter.

Meanwhile, I’d probably overwhelmed Ms. Perkins. She did respond, and I replied on Aug. 29 (a whopping 4-page, single-spaced letter), but it must’ve come across as the epistolary equivalent of a tidal wave. She never responded.

The very day Grandma Adams died, Sept. 25, 1981, I received a letter from one “Milford Shapiro, President” of a correspondence club out of Brooklyn called “Harmony.” I’d answered their ad, wondering if they had pen pals in England. Shapiro responded: “I have many young men and women around your age in England. … Try my service. I will put you next to compatible new friends and into an enjoyable experience. You have an opportunity to enrich your life. Take it…

Take it. It sounded like a magical incantation.

So, I took it.

With earnings from the new job, I mailed in $20 and waited to hear back.

And oh, that new job. I was hired as pre-press and bindery assistant at SOS Printing in Mound. SOS stood for “Smith Offset Services,” its owner being Gerald Smith, longtime local printer. Gerry was a hawk-nosed, somewhat stooped guy, always with a cigarette poised in one hand and smoothing back receding thin hair with the other.

Darkroom work was my preferred thing to do after Lakewood College, over and above running presses or estimating printing costs. My darkroom at SOS Printing was in the basement, just beyond the presses. Manning the AB Dick 360 presses were two older guys, Mark and John, who chain-smoked and traded bemused smirks when I asked how they wanted negatives lithostripped and plates burned.

Part of my job included setting up new account files in long gray folders, labeled on the outside and into which all the necessary job materials went. Upstairs, Judy and Rachel worked the front desk, with Rachel and Gerry doing most of the keylining and typesetting, Judy answering phones and taking print orders. It was a very small operation.

And when the workday was done, the upstairs office headed over to the Legion Hall next door for cocktails, while “the boys downstairs” flipped a coin to see who would run across the street to the municipal liquor store and buy a 12-pack of Special Export. Johnny and Mark then cleaned up their presses and schlepped incoming paper deliveries, while I put away the darkroom chemicals and wiped down the light table. Cigarettes were fired up and beer cans were cracked open.

It took Mark and John a while to get comfortable with “the new kid” in the shop. They would step out to smoke a joint and return, eyes aglow, to finish packing up, suck down their beers and go home to their wives.

And when, after a few beers, this new kid got to talking about pen pals he had in England, and how he was going to travel there and write books…

…well, yeah. I do recall the stoned laughter.

Mamie

•November 21, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Mom, Me, MamieIt was early, very early.

Friday morning, Sept. 25, 1981.

I would’ve never recalled it if I hadn’t found the death notice in a Greensburg, Ind., newspaper clipping that Mom had kept:

“Mrs. Mamie L. Adams, 75, died this morning at her residence at 313 W. Central Ave., where she had lived for 29 years. She had lived in Greensburg since 1945.”

Appended to it is a letter to the editor of the same paper, published days later, written by my maternal grandfather, Ray Adams:

“I am writing this letter about the ambulance service that I did not get a couple weeks ago.

My wife became very ill at 4 a.m. I called for an ambulance at 4:30 a.m. I live less than a mile from the station. At 5 a.m. they arrived.

The fire department was there, as were the police. The ambulance driver did not know where to go. I don’t know what they use the radio for or the city map they have.

I think it is time they are trained better.”Mamie, Ray

While I knew Grandma Mamie passed away in 1981, I couldn’t find any mention of it in my sparse journal from that year. So the clippings fill in details I wouldn’t have remembered now that Mom and Dad are also gone.

Mamie was born in Spiceland, Ind., on Aug. 18, 1906, making her six years younger than Grandpa. The daughter of William A. and Rachel Elizabeth Magee, she was third of that family, along with brothers Herman, who lived near Cape May, N.J., and Ernest, in Albany, N.Y., and a sister, Clara Matthews, in Indianapolis.

Mamie’s father William died in 1922, when she was only 16. His wife, Rachel Elizabeth, was born in 1876 and died in 1946. While I don’t have further info to confirm it, I recall that brother Ernest was schizophrenic and confined to a mental institution. I also remember being told, probably by Mom, that Mamie had another sister who committed suicide at a young age. So, perhaps that’s the genetic background I can point to as the source of my mother’s clinical depression.

MamieRay31Then along came David Raymond Adams. They were married on Aug. 17, 1931, one day before Mamie’s 25th birthday. The photo at left is from that year, as the handwritten caption reads: “The morning we left Carolina 1931,” so I’m guessing it was taken on their honeymoon, driving back to New Castle, Ind., in what must’ve been Grandpa’s 1928 Model A roadster.

Four years later my mother was born, in New Castle.

However, something happened in those intervening years, between the August 1931 wedding and Mom’s birth on Feb. 10, 1935: another woman. Or so the story goes.

How Mom learned about it years later is anyone’s guess. But as a child I did sense tension between Ray and Mamie whenever we visited in Greensburg. Mamie would snipe at Ray, Ray would slink away (likely out to his garage), often with Dad in tow.Me, Mamie

But Grandma Mamie’s terse nature was sometimes a source of amusement, at least for me. Maybe that was the same with the other Magee children—a sense of fatalism, maybe something that could be called “Irish intensity.” Mamie was not afraid to call out bullshit whenever she encountered it.

So when Dad was dating Mom, I remember later hearing (from Dad I think) that Mamie didn’t care for him and thought Mom could find a better choice for a husband.

If the infidelity tale is true, then it’s easy to see why Mamie felt that way—my father, as a young man, had a devil-may-care, egotistical attitude. His Way or the Highway. Mom might’ve seen Dad’s attitude as confidence. I don’t know. But there must’ve been a clash of wills between the devoted Irish mother and the insouciant French-Germanic ex-soldier.

Mamie’s death sent shockwaves through Mom, and I think she never truly recovered from it. She was close to her mother. And after learning about her father’s infidelity—fundamentally the reason she remained an only child—it only served to deepen her depressive episode, just beginning in late 1981, and continuing for six years.

Mamie Xmas 1980While I spent more time with Grandma Mamie than I did with Dad’s mother, Hazel, I was deeply influenced by Hazel’s reading habit. But I don’t recall attending Mamie’s funeral. I’m sure the Family Project immediately flew down to Indiana. The photo at left was taken during Christmas of 1980—probably the last time I saw her alive.

She wasn’t well, that’s clear from the photo.

But I don’t remember anyone speaking of the congestive heart disease that would claim her life that early September morning back in ’81.

Best Steak House

•November 14, 2014 • Leave a Comment

completelyinthedark:

Been working on a new post about my maternal grandmother, and this chestnut came to mind. All new post up next Friday, promise!

Originally posted on Completely in the Dark:

The plaintive mourning dove—that’s a powerful memory.

As a kid, I thought the dove’s “coo-coo-coo” did sound sad. Not specificallysad, more like a meditative sad. It definitely made you stop, listen, and think about things, no matter what you were doing at the time.

And that sound is attached to a place—the very place my brother, his wife, and I are going to during the first week of April: our mother’s childhood home and what will be the final resting place of her ashes alongside those of our father’s. It’s a trip we’d planned to do a year ago, but schedules didn’t quite align.

We leave on Tuesday morning; my brother’s excited. Says he wants to visit our birth home. “Do you remember where that is?” he asks. “Yup. Broad Ripple. North Indianapolis, near the White River. East 64th Street.

After that we’ll visit Dad’s only…

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The Magic Has Gone

•November 7, 2014 • 2 Comments

My beautiful pictureIt had to be the worst moment of Dad’s life.

That morning in May 2008, when he called to tell me Mom had died.

I don’t know why, but I never stopped to imagine what that moment must’ve been like for him, after he was told. I picture him in the kitchen, sipping coffee and looking out past the lanai—another Florida day of humidity and haze only just beginning.

The home hospice nurse—heck, I don’t even know her name—how did she deliver the news to Dad that morning? After she spoke with him, when he walked down the narrow hallway from the kitchen to the sewing room, which then served as Mom’s final bedroom, what was running through his mind?

And that moment he gazed upon her, so still—his wife, the love of his life—my mother, gone. How do you take something like that in?

There I was, 1,655 miles away, in St. Paul, gazing up at a brilliant blue May sky.

Just moments before, a heart full of love for a new woman in my life … now, also, gone.

***

“Did you bring me back any of the magic?”

—Scratched in the new journal, National 43-571, in blue-black fountain pen at the top of page 7, on Oct. 5, 1981.

It was a Monday, and I was living at the farm in Minnetrista. Baby brother was off at college in northern Minnesota. Things were probably very quiet that day. Perhaps Dad had left for his office at the University downtown; Mom, off working as a school nurse in Waconia, Minn.

“I was just looking through Lisa Tepley’s letters to me,” the entry continues, “feeling very sad. I realized something and I want to be very firm about it: Things have changed…

The “magic” quote was lifted from one of her letters, after I’d returned from Camp Shamineau—my last year ever at camp. I was lurching back to the past, when things seemed simpler and the future less hazy:

“How so? I feel too ill to answer but … the magic has gone. Everyone has grown up and become world-weary & culture shocked & sexually insecure. It’s all very scary and very ugly. [The] last time I saw Lisa Tepley she looked tired, like she wanted to lay down and die. Neither of us could feel excitement about anything. We talked achingly. She seemed wrinkled by emotional scrapes, rubbed red to the raw by day-to-day drudgery—into the evening lies, passionless activities, whatever succeeds at eating away at a young, bright & beautiful girl.”

Lisa and I were in our early 20s—me, turning 22 in November. I wanted to write a collection of short stories about a small town called Dumond. I was also writing letters to two young British women I’d discovered late that summer through a pen-pal service out of Brooklyn, called “Harmony.”

You see, when you’re young and you’ve yet to find a mentor—anyone who has already gone through what you’re going through—it’s easy to believe that inspiration comes before creation. It’s a common question: “Where do you get your ideas?”

Twenty days after that despairing entry, I wrote:

“…earlier today I had some thoughts on Dumond that I wanted to write down but I got home and didn’t think any more about it—I remember that it was a sort of ‘epic’ feeling I get every now and then, about some work I’m at.”

Ah, that epic feeling.

Touched by the magical muse. Inspiration over perspiration.

It’s ironic how the rest of the entry plays out:

“…But it was also more than a full heart and warm feet. I watched the families come out of the church. The sky was gray and snow was lightly coming down. I was complaining to myself: carrying on a sort of fantasy debate between myself and ferocious young Christians. I thought: ‘I don’t want some prefabricated peak experience thrust upon me at the sound of [an] organ prelude. Life will come to me nevertheless…’”

Back in the fold of the Family Project, I was aching to define myself. That day, Oct. 25, 1981, was a Sunday. I’d been at church with the folks. There I spied my high school girlfriend Kim’s younger sister Tracy:My beautiful picture

“I saw Tracy in church and she is looking very pretty. I sat in the car and felt sad. Prettiness is a sad thing. I tried to think of snow lightly falling and prettiness shyly saying hello as very sad things. I felt that down Dumond’s shaggy streets, prettiness and sadness sit in the backseat of a new Lincoln Continental and sift some happiness from the sight of new-fallen snow and the scent of perfume and after shave … I had to write this down.”

Sad, scary things. And there I was, 21 years old, calling out those sad and scary things like Saint George, lance in hand, waiting at the mouth of the dragon’s cave. Only, waiting because I wrongly believed that inspiration always trumps creation, when it’s actually the other way around.

The magic has gone, young man, because you left it.

It’s still around, just waiting for you to begin work.

 
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