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Tell Me Something Good

Out of nowhere?

Is goodness so hard to find?

It can be.

Giving up?

Give me a moment.

Done. Nothing good at hand?

Give me another moment.

Done. What does it say that you have no positive word within easy reach?

That it’s . . . never mind. OK. Last Wednesday the sun came out after weeks of cold and rain. Almost seventy degrees in the afternoon. We drove to a nearby brewery where picnic tables are scattered about the lawn and harmonious distancing is practiced. We sat in the sunlight with our droughts. A group of motorcyclists passed in the adjacent road. Loud, yes, but not a gang of threatening malice—a caravan of riders with the wind and sun in their faces. In the beer garden, a dog escaped its owner and ran to the street, up the sidewalk, and into a large grassy lot, where it chased dancing scents at a gallop. Fear and concern among all the people gathered. And then the rapturous dog, so happy to run free, but so close to danger, returned to its owner’s caress, and we all sighed and cheered in the sunshine with our golden drinks and the echoing song of the riders.

That wasn’t so hard, was it?

Oh stop it.

Are you smiling?

Dogs have saved my life yet again.

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The Veneer of Civilization

How thin is the veneer of civilization?

Thinner than you would like it to be.

It’s cracking then?

Veneer always cracks.

Then, are we in dire straits because it’s cracking, or are these days standard fare?

I could say both.

Oh for heaven’s sake, why would you do that?

I wouldn’t. Yes, I know I can be irritating, but I’m not sure why you’re asking me to assess the state of our communal being. Who am I to do that?

Who do you have to be?

Hm. I suppose the consequence of cracked veneer depends on the quality of the underlying wood. If it’s not sound, when the damaged veneer lets the elements in, the structure will decay and eventually, worst case, collapse. On the other hand, if the infrastructure is sound, and the piece is in a sufficiently protected area, you’ll have grandmother and grandfather’s dining room suite, whose wear and tear is a familial history map, maybe even a beloved one.

So then, now that we have our metaphors and allegories in place, what have we got? A cherished if bruised dining room table, or a sideboard laden with memories and meanings that will no longer stand upright?

I like the memories and meanings bit. We’ve got that, whatever else.

You’re really not much help, are you?

Less than you’d like me to be. But then, you always ask too much.

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Why won’t my child go to sleep?

Because she doesn’t want to. We could call in the psychologists and make it more complicated, I suppose, but let’s not. Time for bed…I don’t want to…I can tell you’re tired…Am not…You need your sleep…No I don’t…Everybody needs their sleep…Do not…Well, there was one girl who never slept…So…She’d heard of the thousand stairs…Mm um…You’ve heard of the thousand stairs…No…In Zanzibar, and at the top is a fabulous treasure…What?…Well, it takes a long time to tell. Are you sure you can stay awake?…Yes…She’d heard of Zanzibar. I don’t know how. I think she was the daughter of a famous explorer. And she hiked for many miles across desert and through jungle to reach the stairs. The weather was terribly hot, and she walked for hours everyday, exhausting herself. Putting one foot in front of the other. She wanted to sleep so badly, but more than that she wanted to climb the thousand stairs. Finally, after months of walking, she arrived and saw them rising into the sky so high that the top disappeared into the clouds. She sat for a moment, and it was then she saw the little bearded man sitting calmly on a stone at the bottom of the stairs. She said, “Hello,” and the man smiled and asked, “Are you here to climb the stairs?” She nodded. She was very tired by now but only wanted to rest for a while. “You’re wise to stop and sleep before climbing,” said the old man. “Many others have tried to climb without rest, and they never reached the top.” The girl asked, “What happened to them?” and the man said, “They all fell, but when they fell they became birds, and now they live among the trees in the jungle.” And then…the girl…(parental murmurings…goodnight).

Reprinted with enthusiastic permission from Ask Uncle Bob, 2012, with Uncle Bob’s hopes that it will work for you.

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Bienvenu aux lecteurs français!

Vous êtes invités à vous inscrire pour recevoir les transmissions hebdomadaires des chapitres qui commenceront bientôt (en anglais).

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Third International Serialization of “Body” Begins February 1

The rest of the blog has suffered as preparations are finalized for the launch of the third serialization of Body in the Pond. (Suffering is the state of all being, say the Buddha and Mr. Camus, so no need to worry.) Launch will take place February 1. Canada, Colombia, Morocco, Spain, and Switzerland will then join the list of international destinations. Steadfast England, despite Brexit, has participated in all three rounds. (England loves serials. Thank you Mr. Dickens.)

One overarching rule was in place for rounds one and two: No feedback would be tolerated. It was, of course, broken, as all rules are. So I will say only the following: This is a work of performance art. It is not a writers’ group project. How can one say this politely?: Critiques are not sought. Comments such as “enjoyed it with my coffee every Monday morning” are welcome.

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For Children and Their Elusive Sleep

“Song of the Lake” has been posted, to be read in a soft monotone—the murmur of small waves at a lake shore—to children who mistakenly believe they want to be awake. The work was recently published in a private edition with photographs by the artist William McIntire.

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The Holidays Over, Serialization Awakes

Post-holiday preparations are now feverishly under way for the third international serialization of the novel Body in the Pond, a tonic for dire times.

Feverishly being a relative term.

Let’s say, this round begins this winter, when we’re cold and quarantined, when we all need a regularly recurring bit of warmth and light from a humble performance art project in the Dickensian tradition.

A chapter (or two), every Monday in your email box.

Sign up at unfetteredlit_at_gmail_dot_com.

Free. The only follow-up email you will ever receive will be a request to refer others.

Feedback is not only not requested but will not be tolerated.

Body has been read by readers from India to Taiwan to Jamaica to England to Democratic Republic of Congo to the United States and, well, probably elsewhere, who knows.

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Just after Thanksgiving

Was it her again? At the door?

Yes.

What did she want?

What does she ever want?

I ask the questions. Don’t I?

What does she ever want? is an answer. Money. A ride. A prescription filled, or so she says. To feel good. To be well. To have her life done all over for her.

Did you answer?

Not today.

Why not?

Some days you feel like pouring time and money down a hole, some days you don’t.

So it’s just down to what you feel like?

I used to wonder how I could help. But nothing helps. A few years ago I drove her to church meetings about once a week. Thought it was AA or something. I could do that much. Then her uncle told me she was just going next door to get high after I let her off. Innocent little me.

You don’t try to help anymore?

Sometimes I do, depending on what you mean by help. She’s been digging her grave for twenty years. Pretty much the rest of the neighbors don’t give her a minute to even get started. I’m a softer touch. But I’m tired. Sometimes I give her a few bucks. I have no idea what she does with it. She’s a mess. If she gets high and feels better for the afternoon, that’s OK. That’s all she’s got. But it won’t be long now.

What do you mean?

You’ve seen her. She’s in and out of the hospital these days. She wheels around a couple of little oxygen tanks behind her. Her face is swollen all the time. She’s lost most of her teeth. I took her to the bus station a few weeks ago. Said she had to go to Atlanta to see a doctor. Needed money for a ticket. I gave her some. Then she said she needed money to get a sandwich for the trip. Said there was a snack shop in the bus station. There’s no snack shop in the bus station. Then she got mad when I wouldn’t give her any more money. And she probably just walked downtown as soon as I drove away.

You have a highly developed sense of guilt, don’t you?

One of my better traits. I’m being ironic. But when she knocks on the door and I don’t answer sometimes I think, well who the Hell am I? Would it hurt me to be nice? A week or two ago I was coming downstairs to make a drink. It was evening. I heard the knock. The dogs started barking. I waited for her to go away. She stood outside the door and called my name. Knocked again. Called my name. Knocked again. I just stood in the stairwell where she wouldn’t be able to see me if she looked in the door glass. I just waited for to leave, thinking, she could be dying on my porch and I would be making myself an Old Fashioned. It didn’t paint a good picture of me. So I didn’t make myself a drink. But I didn’t answer the door either.

So what happens next?

Play, repeat, play, repeat. Then one day she dies. I’ll go to her funeral. She’s turned all her family away. Wore them out. But they’ll be there. We’ll shake our heads. But I’m just a neighbor. Just somebody down the street. Somebody on the edge of this. Somebody trying to make sure my own people are OK.

How’s that going?

Pretty well, thanks. They are my gravity. I’m thankful.

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Healing

That was an impressive rant and descent into bloodlust.

My raison d’être is to probe, is it not?

Your job is to ask questions, and you abandoned it.

Did I? Is a rant not a howl in hell for answers so that we may destroy them?

I wouldn’t know.

Wouldn’t you?

I see your point.

And after the blood-letting, what?

If one hasn’t died, healing is all that remains.

And how does that work?

Bishop Tutu said, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

Yet the wound seems so large, doesn’t it, poisoned with rage and anger?

And small acts of healing are so . . . small.

Have you ever watched a child build a structure of blocks and then kick it down?

Of course.

And?

The destruction takes seconds and is viscerally thrilling. The creation takes long minutes or more, and the pleasure is nuanced.

A dilemma, yes?

We love to be thrilled.

And?

And now, for better and for worse, we have been thrilled. The blocks lay scattered. We will create again.

Only to destroy again?

And then to build again.

Round and round?

I hope you’re not discovering this pattern for the first time. The dog will have his tail.

And yet?

Yes, and yet.

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Mao or Gandhi?

Do you want to win?

I certainly don’t want to lose.

Let me reframe: Are you compelled to win?

By whom? Sorry for the question. I need clarity.

By yourself. Are you driven to win?

At times.

Reframing again: Are you perpetually driven to win? Is winning the reason for your existence? Will you do anything to win?

No. There’s a season for everything.

Is every moment a competition?

One could see it that way, I suppose.

Did I ask if you supposed? Did I ask if one could see it that way? Do you demand to win? Will you accept nothing less than victory, with every breath you take?

Sounds exhausting.

Loser!

That’s not a question.

Questions are a waste of time!

I disagree.

I will crush you!

Why? (I suppose I must start asking the questions now.)

You are weak!

We used to have such stimulating conversations. Why are you shouting?

You have contempt for the nation and its people! You are an abomination to the gods! You are a disgrace! I will crush you.

And what am I to do now? Leave? Roll over?

You will do as I say.

That’s the danger, isn’t it? When one commands there will always be those who follow, who need to follow.

Have you stopped assaulting children yet?

What? I never . . .

Perverted antipatriotic scum!

Liar.

I grind you beneath my heel.

There are limits.

Traitor! Radical!

The veneer of civilization is thin.

Coward! Enemy of the nation.

You leave me with a terrible choice.

The time for choosing is over. You chose wrong.

I haven’t chosen yet.

Mao or Gandhi?

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