T for Tom

On Hopelessness

Posted in america, Europe, Prose, Uncategorized by johnsontoms on June 28, 2018

Snow drifted softly to the ground as I walked the streets of St. Petersburg, covered in white everywhere except for a few recent footsteps in the snow by the people walking in every direction up and down under the dim light of a lamppost in the winter night. I was at the mercy of the guide to my side, but also to the whims of this frozen nation and its people, its principled foray into modernity based squarely on its resistance to change – I couldn’t speak Russian and hardly knew the alphabet, and so couldn’t learn much to help myself during this week long voyage into a great northern Christmas. Were it not for the few people with me at different times, I wouldn’t have eaten well or even much, and certainly would have been left to my own silence and thoughts there in the cold.

Though for the sake of speaking, I learned, there was much helplessness to go around. On just the first night of five, I had been taken to dinner by a young woman my age who was lucky enough to own a vehicle and who drove me across the bridge into the city and to a warm, deep red colored restaurant where we shared borsht and a beer. Her name was Tanya, and you wouldn’t know her from a European or an American if you passed her on the street, and especially if you heard her speak. She had large, open eyes set under a head of dark, almost black hair, and could have easily been the girl next door. I asked her why she was here in St. Petersburg and how she learned English so well, and she told me that she had lived in Germany for a couple years while studying but had to return to work. I asked her if it was her choice, but she said it wasn’t. “It’s hard to stay away, and since my studies were paid for, I had to come back and work for the company that provided it.” I asked her when she might expect to be able to travel again, and she said she didn’t know. “It doesn’t really work that way.” Getting any more of an answer was the first time I had been stonewalled. I would learn over the week that her impenetrable spirit was less the will of the people and more the will of the state, and it found its way into everyone there.

My second guide was a few years younger than myself or my guest the previous night. Her name was Anna, fittingly, and she had bright, almost red, brown hair that seemed to sparkle. We met in the afternoon at a coffee shop down Nevsky Prospekt, and I couldn’t help but think that the shine was from her infectious smile or the sunshine outside that lit the snow-covered ground and turned it into an upward facing mirror. Like Tanya the night before, her English was easily understood, though she carried a more typically-Russian way of affecting her words. As a sign to her age, she was dressed head to toe in a full-length purple parka, accented with purple gloves. She took me to the Christmas fair in the middle of the promenade that occurred in the daytime during this January week, the time of Russian Orthodox Christmas. We talked about traditions and watched the skaters in the ice rink, before she mentioned that her brother had been in the Russian army. As I was in the American army now, I wanted to know what she thought. “The Russian Army is mandatory for most men.” I didn’t know what she meant by most men. “Well, there are those that are can pay their way out of it, though they’re not supposed to,” she said. “But that’s just the way a lot of things go.” She jumped back into talking about Christmas as if nothing had happened, and before long offered to enter a bar mid-afternoon to take a shot of vodka, simply as a means of warming up. It was truly just the way things had gone, and appeared to continue.

Eventually I asked her to see something different, to get into the thick of St. Petersburg. I’m not sure if it was naiveté or youth or both, but she had a tour guide’s knowledge of two art museums just off the prospect – she knew of their existence, but seemed uninterested in the reasons why. She did make sure to remark on St. Petersburg’s first Starbucks that had just opened and which we passed on the way. Shortly we arrived at an unremarkable building and turned into the center hallway. “This is the John Lennon museum,” she said. “We have to go into the building to maybe enter.” The halls were painted with graffiti and on the doors of one entrance was a plaque to John Lennon himself – “In the name of John Lennon – the Temple of Love, Peace, and Music.” We walked up a staircase to an empty hallway where a printed sheet of paper was taped to a bell – “ring to enter.” But no one answered. “It’s often closed, and there are no times,” said Anna. “We can go to a different museum across the street.” And just as quickly we left. It was just the way of things.

The next gallery was a modern art institute of sorts that was more clearly marked with neon signs and that operated a bar inside, which was a nice evening greeting. It still had the feeling of being a bit ramshackle, and I was getting the feeling that these two museums, in their disparate and near-hidden existences, persisted only so far as the state allowed them. The second museum featured pieces on the city’s subways and architecture, and was likely much less a threat. The John Lennon Museum, which I later learned was referred to by its address, Pushkinskaya 10, was much more in disguise – I never found out what was behind the doors, and steps had clearly been taken to keep it that way. There was a spirit of protest somewhere in the halls of that building, but it was under cloak and mask. But in spite of the cloak and deceit, I couldn’t help but note that I had come there and found it with a little help – we didn’t have to try that hard – and that the state, like with everything else, somehow allowed this to continue. I had the feeling that the museum itself was somehow purposefully hopeless. It evoked the sense of freedom in name and image, but could do nothing to obtain it. I believe that it was allowed to exist exactly in such that way, as a symbol to the people of St. Petersburg. We were supposed to rejoice that the freedom expressed in our dreams was allowed to exist, somewhere anyway, even if we could never have it ourselves.

I stayed with Anna all through the evening until just after dinner, where we found ourselves walking back toward the Nevsky Prospect where I’d depart on my way to meeting other students for a night of drinking. We passed church, among the many we saw along the way, but less remarkable. I had already seen the Kazan Cathedral and the Church on the Savior of Spilled Blood, the only orthodox church in St. Petersburg. With Anna now, we had passed what would be unremarkable in any Midwestern American town, a small chapel with greek architecture in the front, and a single steeple on top that didn’t rise above two floors. It may well have been a government building. But it was the year of Pussy Riot and I wanted to know what the feeling on the street was, and so I asked. “How do you feel about Pussy Riot?”

“What do you mean?” she replied.

“How do you feel about the girls being held in prison?”

“You cannot protest in a church,” she answered.

It was my turn to be confused and so I asked her what she meant this time.

“No can protest in a church, even if you disagree with Putin,” she said. “It didn’t have to be in a church.” And as if for emphasis, she added, “That’s the law.”

That’s the part that always stuck with me. The immutable law. I felt like Anna couldn’t see the possibility of absurdity in the law, much in the way that we couldn’t see into the John Lennon Museum. She came up to and in front of the point – that Pussy Riot, or just people anywhere, should be able to protest when and where they please, which is a protest – but couldn’t cross a fundamental barrier that had been erected by years of social education otherwise. Where Tanya may have some cynical grasp that she is lost to hopelessness in spite of knowing better, Anna is hopeless against the modes and methods that make her life possible. Both are reverent to the cogs that spin the wheels, but there is a difference for their place in it – hopeless to change it, or hopeless to believe it should be any different.

In Bloom’s essential, though now forgotten, incision on our own American education in Closing of the American Mind, he discusses the philosophical theory that persisted throughout the duality of the sixties, and foremost by those who opposed the rise of liberality in social education: “the [social] contract theorists all taught that the law must never be broken, that the strength of the law is the only thing that keeps us away from the state of nature, therefore that risks and dangers must be accepted for the sake of law.” And in this way, Anna accepts that things won’t get better, because she also accepts that they cannot get worse. But this is merely perception, ingrained through years of reinforcement by the state and the education she received.

In America, those who uphold the law do not want to see the way things are met with change. As described before, any change in the law indicates a move toward lawlessness, or the state of nature. In the state of nature, all things are equal, in measure to their worthiness (but, crucially, not their ability) to claim their livelihood. And for so many now, for the weak and the minorities and the poor and the sick and the ill and the mistreated and the abused, for the vast majority of the United States of America, enforcing the law will uphold a way of life that we cannot survive. It is within this system that we feel hopeless, and only by changing it can we gain hope for a better future.

It takes a long time for this idea to gain a plurality – that our best hope is working beyond the system, and not by incrementally using the same system for the purpose of great change. Over two hundred years of this system has only kept the same minority in power, and from their seats of power now they continue to call for upholding the system, above all else. Above all misuses, above all misdeeds, above all errors and grafts and abuses of and by the system, we are told that our best hope for a better future remains within the system. This is merely the social education of the American people speaking, as it always does. That our best hope is within this democracy. But have we not seen the failures of voting, in multiple elections in this lifetime alone? Have we not seen the imperiling of our existence by the officials elected to representative us? We must be reminded that they are the same ones asking now for us to remain rooted in our belief in the system, on the belief that the system works. But our education, like the system that teaches it, only serves the purposes of those giving the lessons.

It takes looking at an Anna or a Tanya to see ourselves in other places. It takes seeing these young men and women in hopeless situations. The new way forward, if we find one, will be in the understanding that we can only go ahead by removing the things in our way, if even they be the laws themselves. Some nobility within directs us to break certain laws for sake of other higher laws, but I’ll leave the defining of those higher laws to the future tense.

The last question I posed to Anna before we parted was how she could not see the virtue in Pussy Riot breaking the law. Her answer was dismissive, if not correct: “what am I going to do about it?”

What are we going to do about it? Things can either stay the same or they can change. In the short term I knew there was nothing I could do about it, and parted ways with Anna to meet another Tanya, a blond. I knew it was hopeless in my five days to try and get to the bottom of the Russian existence, and so to get to the bottom of my own. I spent the rest of my time existing there in the spaces around me. If their Russian tragedies had led them to this moment, they were at least still alive. They were alive in the few art museums I had already seen, and they were still alive in Dostoevsky’s adult home, and they were still alive crossing the Neva by foot, and they were still alive in spite of it all, in spite of the system that keeps them there in that winter snow globe.

It would be hopeless to try and change that, and so we all just float on, hopeless.

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Finding Ways to Find Our Way Back

Posted in Europe, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on May 16, 2018

It’s always the moments at the very end that stick with me. Everything before is clear as day, but the emotions that linger strongest were the emotions in climax, the emotions in simultaneously in conflict: “I’d never trade this moment for the world, but I’ll never have it to do again.”

It was the sunset that made this possible, on the last day I had before deployment. I wasn’t entirely free on that day – our vehicles had been permanently stored the week before, and we had a wakeup call at 4am to begin the long, slow, laborious task of loading our individual bags first on a bus, then on a train, then on a plane on the way to the Middle East. But in some effort of compassion, we were released that afternoon around lunch time. Those who had families went to them. Those who didn’t had each other.

As a matter of soaking up every last minute of eligible choice I had, we went as far away and as we could conjure, and stayed as active as we possibly could. The idea of sitting down and talking wasn’t enough. Taking a walk around the base would’ve been peaceful, but I always had the idea to do just a bit more – go beyond the lines of reason, because it wasn’t reason that put us here in the first place. We weren’t supposed to drink, so we bought a six pack. We weren’t supposed to be out past sundown, so we planned on taking the last train back. The biggest, most exciting thing there was available for us was to board the train for the next village over, a distance of about four miles, and play putt-putt at the community recreation center.

As a military unit, there were six of us who had all been released at the same time and, though we usually didn’t spend our free time together, were compelled to join up and do something erratic. We all had the electricity of knowing this was it. The couple Joes I didn’t mind who usually played video games came along, either out of anxiety or because their systems were already packed away for the flight. There was Micah, Marshall, James, Rueben, and myself. A few of them were even wearing their tan combat undershirts, because our personal clothes had also been stored already for the long year without us.

We all met in front of our barracks building by the back gate and started walking out toward the train station just around the corner. I had a six pack in hand, and Marshall asked if I should be worried. I didn’t have a reason to care. Just as we were about to reach the gate, I heard Corey yell from his second floor window across the way. He lived in a separate building than us because he was in a different unit, but we had remained friends throughout our time first in training, and second in Germany. We had even travelled much of the country together, but he was due now to part for the Middle East himself, though with his own unit and to a different location. But walking out I heard his “Hey! What are you doing!?” and knew to answer back: “Going to Burgbernheim, gonna play putt putt. Take the next train and bring beer.” As we were paying for our tickets at train station after the five minute walk, he came bounding up out of breath and with a bottle of schnapps in his hand.

The whole scene was a little rowdier than I’m used to, in the way I like to be when I’m doing things like this. It wasn’t always the act of the thing that got me, but the act of doing the thing in new places. It wasn’t the putt putt that I came for, but the feeling of being a German citizen, on a beautifully crisp spring’s afternoon.

Burgbernheim sat at the base of the cliff that swept wide along the entire eastern border of our village and the valley around us. In fact, the small village of Burgbernheim ran east to west, and the furthest eastern point was the chapel that sat on the hill overlooking the village below. And in that village, next to a friend’s apartment, I knew there was a small community operated putt putt course that we hadn’t played on yet. The idea of doing something so banal in such an unremarkable place seemed utterly German of me – it wasn’t the putt putt, because I think that’s American faire, but the idea of just doing something to pass time in the places were we live. And I lived in Germany. It separated me from the physical tourism of each event and brought about an experience of understanding, of communion. These things aren’t too different than us.

Marshall and James, who I hadn’t really travelled with much, were nice to come along, but played their games as we went. First to make jokes, first to throw punches, all in good nature, but without the moment to just sit down and think about what we were doing. To fester on the idea that the wildest, craziest thing we could even physically manifest in our environment, was a stroll up from the train station in the next village over to drink beer and play mini-golf. I noticed the greening of the bushes as we went, and the lush, deep grass that lined all the yards and parks. I wondered if I remember their scent, or remember the colors. I wondered if I would even have the chance to walk like this with friends of mine, aimlessly and with nothing to do.

We played putt putt there, and it got a little out of hand. Not even for the alcohol so much as the pent up anxieties of what would happen to us. No one ever mentioned that in less than twelve hours we’d be putting on a uniform, never to see a pair of jeans again for some nine months. We didn’t discuss the food we were eating at the ice cream stand and how much it’d be different in the desert, and we didn’t talk about the shadows that were growing on the ground as the sun slipped lower over the horizon and off into the distance of a rolling, unending sea of farms, up and over with the hills that seemed so much like a scene from a film. We just finished our beer, found the recycling, and made our way noisily back to the last train from this village.

It was there on the train steps that I saw it growing. I hadn’t ever been to this train stop, because I hadn’t yet had a reason to go to Burgbernheim that I couldn’t drive for. But their train station was somehow smaller than ours in Illesheim, even though our village some couple thousand less people – they at least had a grocer. But where Illesheim’s train stop was a full old station that now sat empty, Burgbernheim didn’t even have the building anymore. In fact, from we were sitting, it looked like it had been leveled and turned into a green space, with a few parking spots just next to it, ostensibly for the few persons in Burgbernheim who drove to the train regularly. The advanced ticketing computers that were used everywhere just made a full train station obsolete, even in the largest metros. And so there in Burgbernheim, it had been replaced with what is known best to us as a bus stop – a simple bench system with a covered awning, and a few front from the platform where we would board the train. This platform, being so small and open and with little surroundings, was raised just enough to get on the train at its height. But the added benefit from here, looking west, was that the valley continued to sink off westward away from the cliffs, which meant we could look out and see the full view of everything we had come to love in the past year.

Life, vital life, blue skies, and the feeling of infinite youth. It was being taken from us the next day. In sadness and in communion, mother earth gave me one last fiery sunset.

I lit a cigarette and ignored everything around me, thinking of everything around me.

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This is that sunset, from Burgbernheim. The last sunset I’ve ever known.

I remember thinking that I hadn’t spent enough time watching the sun go down in Europe. I remember thinking that I had been on the go for so long, that I didn’t know what I was running for. I remember thinking about Nurnberg, and Munich, and Rome and Estonia and Finland and Prague. I remember thinking that I had done so many things for so many people, and taken so much time to be with so many people all around the world, that I hadn’t ever taken time to slow down. I remember thinking that I would love to do it all again, every single mistake and act and false start. I remember thinking it was the best way to put it all to sleep.

What I know now is that these moments will never happen again. I can recreate them for myself, and I can find new ones just like them and new ones more spectacular. But what I cannot do as I get older, is fill these spaces with the people I know and love. As the beating of time wears us down, and the weight of obligations fills us up, we will be less likely to ever have so many of our friends together, willfully or not, in the same place. Some have children, some moved across the county, others are still in the Army. Some are doctors, some are unemployed, some will never talk to me again. But whatever it is that they’re doing, it is enough to keep them away from my life, should I ever ask them to reenter. The chances that I could ever get these six people back together again are non-existent.

We went on to the Middle East the next day, and set about finding ways to find our way back. We worked as we were told, drifted along in the way that life directs us. We got back and we went our ways, back into our habits and along the way of time, keeping some of us close and spreading some of us far apart. Time and youth and necessity brought us together, in such strange moments for all our lives to have been there and to have done that, in that way. Every now and then it all clicks into place and something wonderful can happen.

I can always see another sunset. But I will never see another one like that.

Hiding From Synthetic Light

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on May 3, 2018

In all corners there, I was constantly surrounded but constantly alone. I lived inside a fence for nine months, always in the presence of others who were there just like me but that I didn’t know personally and never would see again. I lived in their world just as mine, but neither of our worlds were really in existence, as nature goes. I was never without someone nearby, but I never had anyone close. There were nothing but possibilities, but I couldn’t leave the camp if I tried.

Do you know what it’s like to be so alone that you’re fully alive? Do you know how it feels to have all the power in the world and nowhere to use it?

We took up hobbies. I couldn’t leave the desert without a product to show for my time, and I came back with most of a manuscript and a penchant for recreational running. I had taken to getting fit, and I sought to create something. There really is fear in idle hands, to say nothing of how such a combat outpost comes to exist on the borders on the Kuwaiti desert where no living creature survives without daily truckloads of water.

Tedium. It was like always being in the balance. For some sake, I was there and had been taken there to do the bidding of others, listen to the commands of superiors. There was always work to be done. Always a task to be completed. And yet, somehow and in the midst of eternal work, it always felt like I could be doing anything else in exactly that moment – laundry, eating, working out, reading, watching a movie, beating off, just taking a fucking walk for chrissakes, smoking, throwing a football. So long as it wasn’t being dictated to me by a higher up and so long as it could happen in the spaces I was allowed to walk, it was a clearer, wiser choice.

I spent about three hours of everyday walking to different places in the two-square-mile or so side of camp that we inhabited. It was a fifteen minute walk to the gym in the morning, five minutes to the DFAC, twenty minutes back to the tent, and fifteen minutes to the work tent for morning call, all at the start of the day. Fifteen minutes to the DFAC and back for lunch, fifteen minutes to the tent at the end of the day, twenty minutes to the DFAC, five to the USO if you could find a place to hide your backpack that didn’t make it look like an IED (twenty minutes back and forth to your tent to get your backpack if you couldn’t), and twenty minutes back to the tent. That’s two and a half hours of time walking if you didn’t have to walk anywhere for work, give or take your tasks. But given that we didn’t have access to vehicles and all our bicycles got desert-rot in about two month’s time, there was plenty more walking to do.

The trick became finding ways to make something you had to do to survive into something enjoyable. How to make time on the two or three roads that were paved more enjoyable than the weekly formation runs I was required to take there, or the handful of physical fitness timed runs I went on. How to find a way to sit on a concrete slab and stare out on a horizon as long as a ruler and make it more peaceful than when I was just resting my knees after a hour in full plated armor under the 130-degree sun. How to sleep in a tent with fifty people and no working air conditioner and not think about whether the shower trailer works tomorrow or not.

I tried to spend as much time alone, and craft out as much space for myself as I could. Even when I was in the USO tent, fighting for space with some hundred-odd soldier kids, I took up the only table, usually by myself, and set about typing in the manuscript while everyone else watched sports or played on the video game systems. I even quit smoking a couple weeks into the first month, which removed me from the open air spaces where someone would come and interrupt my silence. I took up the habit of smoking cigars on Sunday as motivation, something to look forward to. Our sleeping tents were about 100 feet long by thirty feet wide, and there were entire sections of the camp where these tents were lined up four wide by six long, like a giant tent subdivision. These tents were then surrounded by any entire wall on all four sides of blast wall concrete pillars, and at both of the two longer ends were a row of shower trailers that operated on gasoline. If the gasoline ran out, the water and the electricity would both shut off instantly, and it didn’t care if you were in the middle of shower or jerking off. Just past the shower trailers there was a single berm like a fish pond, a water catch where the shower runoff would exit the trailer and pool up to be evaporated during the day. But just on the corner there, by the shower trailers nearest to my corner of the subdivision, there was a berm pool that was built up but no longer used, where a trailer had been but was moved.

The sand walls for the berm were about five feet high still and there was nothing but rocks and few pieces of pipe left behind in the empty pooling area. It took me a couple days to find this place, having walked first to the centers of the big empty spaces between subdivisions looking for darkness but constantly interrupted by the passing foot traffic of someone going somewhere at all times. I dug into a large dumpster and found a discarded camping chair and dragged it into the empty berm. And if I put it just close enough into one corner, the trailer lights that lit up the subdivision were hidden behind wall of sand, which was just enough to block out directly exposure to synthetic light.

And I’d sit there and look up and stare at the darkness, puffing on a $2 cigar that I purchased weekly from the exchange and that had long, long ago dried out on its journey to the checkout lane and into my hand. But it would light and it would stay lit, and I’d sit there with my headphones on for an entire hour and do nothing. Listening to music became the only literal way to tune out the humdrum of war. In Kuwait, though, it wasn’t really war. It was the bones of a war fought by a different generation, and it was the sum total of humanity in the 21st century. I was just tuning it all out. All of it.

By then on Sundays I would have written in the manuscript for six hours because Sunday was my assigned day off. It didn’t really matter which day was the day off, because everyone had different days and there were no weekends. It just happened to be Sunday. For others it was Wednesday, for others Saturday. There were no football games to attend or parties to host. But after I completed laundry and working out and writing all day, on Sundays I had just enough extra time to do exactly nothing.

Heartache, don’t come near me.

While the others were playing video games or working or eating or trying to talk to their wives, I sat there and looked out and thought about myself and the stars around me. About twice during those nine months, the sand would clear out in the sky just enough to show me the stars. But mostly it was fully dark and I had only my thoughts and the music and the low-humming sound of generators to keep me company.

Still though, I was closer to the infinite there.

Dark days, stay away from me.

In Darkness Without Speaking in the Czech Republic

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on January 8, 2018

Somewhere down from the mountain and past the first village on the road back to Prague, as the woods hastened the darkness that grew over the road and filled the car, only the light of a cigarette and headlights on the road, we drifted slowly back into bliss. Where the intersections were still just stop signs and only a home here or a shed there to pockmark the way home. The breeze was getting warmer as we descended further from the top, the windows open as we hit the highway. An hour or more on the road and we hadn’t a thing to say, out of peace, out of understanding. Soon, a highway opened up and the car began to gain speed there in the night, the passing of yellow stripes accelerating by in the corners of our vision. Our hair whipped more in the wind and we breathed in, deeply. We were going home later than we planned, but it felt like we had only just begun moving. It felt like we would never stop.

It felt like I would never stop sliding down those mountain slopes, and it felt like I was still standing there on the top. It felt like I was heading home, and it felt like I could never go back. What started simply as the first time I’d go snowboarding ended as a whirlwind trip of just a couple days, the final keystone of a month I had spent abroad, in Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Austria, and now again the Czech Republic and onto the mountains bordering Poland. I had been invited on a Tuesday and by Friday was in Prague on my way. I was there to see my friends that I hadn’t seen since before year of the war, but when it was over, it wasn’t so much a reunion as a baptism. I left with the feeling that I had been led to a gateway, a new way of seeing.

I would be gone three days and two nights, but my time on the mountain was shortened to a single overnight at Spindleruv Mlyn. Petra had an exam early Saturday morning. I spent the morning walking around Praha 14 alone, nowhere to go and nowhere to be, in solitude. I discovered a beautiful playground gateway with Rudyard Kipling’s “If” etched into a gate, but mostly I stared at the soviet apartment complexes that lined these roads on the outskirts. We picked up Dan after her exam and made our way north by afternoon. They spoke natively to each other while I drove, the GPS guiding my turns.

That Kipling gate, though I don’t remember exactly where we were.

I had never been snowboarding, and I had never so often just gone with it. I only learned what came next as each turn approached. I was invited snowboarding for the first time in my life, and so I drove to Prague. A day later I was told we needed to pick up Dan and I did. After we were all together I was told to drive north and I did. Each thing only came as it was needed. I had grown comfortable enough to just let it happen.

The European night always came early and we arrived at the mountain in darkness. We bought lift passes for the night slope, which they could best translate to me as “not for first time.” I said let’s go, and they were happy to see my excitement. Petra smiled, Dan gave a laugh. I picked it up after only a few attempts and we spent the whole evening on the slope, together and alone. I went at my pace, seeing only their peace sign gestures as they barreled down the hill past me, smiling as they went. Eventually we met at the bottom, exhausted. They told me we would be staying with their friends who worked on the resort and we drove a block or so to the home.

It was the kind of resort lodge you’d expect, but turned into a hostel for workers. We threw our bags on the floor of a room that had four bunkbeds, a wall full of extreme sports posters, and a small tube television playing skiing videos in silence. The windows were fogged over from the heat indoors. We sat there for a few hours passing a bottle of moonshine, slivovitz. They passed joints and laughed. Petra told me “we may talk only in Czech, too drunk to translate” but I waved it off. They each took turns to smile in my direction as I downed another slug of slivovitz, and their gestures were enough. My movement was unbroken.

We kept passing the moonshine in that cabin room until it was gone, and made our way to a bar somewhere down the road. I remember being in a dark, red-lit room with loud music, and then waking up in the snow of a driveway across the street while it was still nighttime and then walking, soaked, in a straight line hoping I’d find the cabin. I was lucky enough, opened the door and fell asleep on the floor.

In the morning I was told we’d be taking a bus to a different slope and followed Petra’s gestures as she spoke in Czech to Dan, rushing to board the bus. It stopped at a resort up high on a different peak, and we started walking with our boards for what seemed like a mile in soft-pack snow, surrounded by nothing but trees. The sun had never shone so bright. Eventually we reached their friends at a small cabin and off in the distance I could see a new slope. They went to their friends and I started making my way down the mountain on my own. I spent the afternoon alone again, in turns snowboarding and catching my breath, and, unable to mount the single lift to ride back up, walking three miles back to the top. I was so exhausted there in the snow that I took all my clothing off just to cool down. Amongst the slopes, still no one cared. No one was even really nearby. Eventually Petra found me in the middle and we all paused to catch our breath. We stared east at the mountains and said nothing. After a few minutes Petra told me that the last bus back would be leaving soon. We slid down the slope as quickly as possible, boarded the bus, grabbed our bags, and loaded the car to drive back to Prague. Snow was falling as we started to leave.

The back of Dan’s helmet reflecting the second slope.

I was so excited to go snowboarding for the first time that I didn’t really think of my friends the whole time, friends I hadn’t seen in nearly a year. I was so excited to drive north with my friends from across the earth, that I hadn’t really thought that I didn’t have snow tires on the car. I was so overwhelmed by the isolation of the peaks that I didn’t really care to speak to anyone. I was so in tune with the rush of adrenaline and the beauty of the mountains that I didn’t feel like coming down.

We drove off in darkness without speaking. We let the wind speak to us. We spent three days together without saying more than a smile, but said everything we needed to say. I had been by myself but I was never alone. It felt like I had found out how to keep moving. The darkness at night on the way back had never felt so wonderful. A new day was on the other side.

Especially So On Sundays

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on November 7, 2017

The rain was always falling in Germany, but especially so on Sundays and often in the morning. Sundays alternated between blissfully hazy and rapturously gorgeous, and always there was nothing to do but reflect. I think it was some kind of law that kept all industry quiet on the holy day which had become a national day of rest, the Sabbath notwithstanding any longer. And for the opportunity to do absolutely nothing, I always took about sitting in a park and either watching the rain fall or staring into a big blue sky full of clouds. This particular day was the former, and I walked through the water towards the public sauna.

I hadn’t spoken a word since waking up. I was able to rise, shower, change clothes, check out of the hostel, smoke a few cigarettes and walk to the sauna across town without so much as a “hello.” We forget how pleasant it can be in a world full of noise. And so I was able to listen to my own thoughts as I turned the corners on foot, seeing a dark charge of leaves smothering the puddles, the late winter dreariness blanketing all paths. The branches of the bushes that were waist-high drooped over the fences and into the walkways, while a pallor of tree canopies loomed overhead to obscure the little light that broke through the density above. Eventually I reached the sauna and paid in, including the price of a few words. After locking up my things I walked with only a towel into the sauna room where men and women, old and young, stripped to sweat out the weekend. For me, that was a lot of sweating, but the peace always worked over me more than any of the heat.

The room had a couple different saunas on both sides of a foyer that opened into a garden, and in between takes in the hot rooms I would walk out with just a towel around me, breathing in the fresh air. The garden had managed to retain a bit of snow clumps on the tops of the bushes, and I remarked internally how fascinating the imagination can be if the public good is directed together – the existence of the garden in the sauna building, in the winter, to be walked through between sessions in the spa, was so simple and yet completely foreign to my American mind. I wondered why we didn’t like to do these things as well.

Eventually I tired of the sauna, exhausted and nearly sleeping there in the foyer between showers. I cleaned, grabbed my things and left again to walk about the city. I was only a thirty minute drive from home, give or take, and wasn’t in any rush at all. So I continued to walk around the river, staring at the homes of the people who were fortunate enough to live inside, and live here.

I continued to walk and stare at the green bushes that fell over from the weight of the rain and snow, and the grey concrete sidewalks that were spotted with brown and the colors of fall and winter. I continued to walk and talk to myself and at some point sat down to read from my favorite novel. I continued to walk and smoke cigarettes and take turns sitting and staring at the things around me, in total blissful ease. I continued by myself, I continued.

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This Proximity to the Water’s Edge

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on October 6, 2017

She had boarded the ship that would take her back across the water to her home, a ferry, but really a large cruiser that was used to transport people throughout the Scandinavian and Baltics via sea. I had made that sea-bound trip myself before from Estonia but this time flew into Helsinki and waited there for her arrival. Three days later she was leaving now and I had six hours or so until my return flight. I wanted nothing better than to walk around in the sun, or what little bit of it could slice through the Easter clouds of the typically grey Finnish morning.

My second time in Helsinki, this, and mostly all of both spent near the harbor, what is the heart of the city. That famous cathedral you know in the photos just a 100-meters or so off the central harbor not far from where she boarded, the steps to the chapel hall numbering some 50 or 60, enough that from its doors it overlooks the buildings at its feet and off into the water in the distance and further into eternity.

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I was so vibrant then.

Helsinki feels that way, the buildings rising to uniform height, all the even lines vertically and horizontally, so tight that merely meandering the human paths before you can feel as if stumbling through the Coliseum of the heavens.

But I didn’t go back to the chapel this morning, not for a third time just a couple days prior, but huddled close to the water line. It was early April and the sun comes up around 4am, had been up about five hours now as I walked the sidewalks along the water. The grass to my right separated me from the red brick apartment homes that overlooked it all. And from this proximity to the water’s edge, you can see, even in springtime, the frozen layer of ice that covers the sea for as far as the eye can stretch.

It’s been broken up now but not thawed. It moves slowly with the push of the ships coming to and from. It never laps recklessly like surf but merely slushes back and forth, hardly a line opening up to show the dark blue infinite. Just ice of various depths, the earth in cycle.

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…   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …

I sat there for the entirety of my hours and wondered how something could be seen as less than cosmic. Equally of magic and beyond our machinations but yet so rote and earthen. Here long before us, here long after.

Like the frozen sea so too like the fiddles here, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over over and over and over and over, slowly, again, ceaseless unending, evangelical and worthy of praise.

 

A Few Weeks In and a Future So Bright

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on August 23, 2017

There’s a moment I remember in concert with this song, but the swell of emotions more accurately encompass the totality of a larger, greater period of years. M83 is a French artist, and I’d listened to his music in various depths throughout college. But there was always something about the lead single from his 2011 album HurryUpWe’reDreaming., “Midnight City,” that just told me the coming set of songs would be special. It came out five days after I landed in Germany and was nothing short of a soundtrack to those years in my life. It felt like birth, and the song “Intro” remains as much to me a sensation of new beginning, tied permanently with any great moment of vision I’ve ever had and create still today.

The moment I remember clearly, though, centered around a conversation I had with John and Corey in Ansbach, only a month after we landed in country for the first time. Corey and I were stationed in our home village of Illesheim, about 20 miles west, and had been to Ansbach once before, with a weekend in Nuremberg sandwiched in between. Because I had a flare for the cinematic, I had set about a plan to only travel out into Europe in steps, one distance at a time, each distance greater than the last. It began by walking to the nearest village the first weekend I had arrived, even if I were under orders not to leave base. Two weeks later and no longer on restriction, I took my first train ride to Ansbach, only those 20 miles, but a little bit further. Corey and I then spend four days in Nuremberg, about 50 miles away, and made the greatest friends we could have imagined there in the city. Our suspicions were proven true, and we knew Europe would be the blessing it truly was. A week after that Nuremberg trip we had reconvened to drink again and walk around Ansbach. With little direction at all, and with more joy to ever gained in the town center than can be done in one visit, we went back to the old town, which like any good European city was the center of the town and built around a centuries-old church.

From John’s apartment up the hill, it was a direct walk down the towering land overhead that made way to the river bed where the church sat in the middle of the town, a 30-minute’s walk to paradise. Once through a little urban apartments that scattered outside the old town ring, and under the breezeway supported by a bell tower and clock, the walkways no longer accepted cars, narrowed into tight, cobblestone lined paths, and was lit up by the shops on all sides, the shopkeepers living overhead in the second floor and third floors. The road makes an S-curve quickly and just past the coffee shop there heading north sat a döner stand, on the east side of the street. It was the quick bite, but it was also the most rewarding. We started each night in Ansbach this way, and rather than getting cooped up in a restaurant, we took the döners outside with a beer and sat on the steps to watch the passersby, the light peering in from in between the tall urban shops and homes turning from pale blue to orange and finally to a rich hue of navy, night setting in overhead and the soft white of the cobblestone illuminating from the lamps on every wall and on all sides. Europe really has a special way of lighting up at night.

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John standing in that European night.

I remember sitting there buying beer after beer, talking about our hopes and dreams for the immediate future. We didn’t have conversations about the state of politics (not directly, anyway), and we didn’t set out our plans for financial security. We were men under control of other men, and the best we could hope for was the freedom to travel the world on the other side, one weekend at a time. We made jokes about the few places we’d been, the things we’d learned, and how we’d do it better next time. We talked about Corey spending an entire afternoon in Ansbach sitting at the outdoor coffee shop not 30 feet from our current location, sipping radlers until we were drunk, making his plan for approaching the beautiful girl who worked in the jewelry store directly in our vision. The sun hung sweetly overhead all that afternoon, a blue sky blue, as we burned through a pack of cigarettes and dreamed of getting to know her name. He eventually went in, tried on a watch, and came out alone.

Later on after the döners, we made our way to a nearby bar that became our patronage. I liked being in these new places with these wonderful people, like Aldi, the bartender and owner at Brasserie who always laughed with us and poured us shots of absinthe (pronounced “ab-sin-tay!,” emphasis on the exclamation), the only people in his bar after dinner hours. I liked being in a strange, small, low-ceiling building that I learned was commonplace and expected. I liked eating strange and different foods, drinking whatever was passed my way. But mostly I liked walking from each of these places to the next and not even really knowing where the next one was or in what shape it would take. We needed another bar and so we put on our coats to warm us from the chill of the European winter and started walking in any direction, usually the direction opposite of the way we came. Endless adventure, always onward. I remember walking by a chapel on the way back to John’s apartment, the kind of chapel that is innocuous in and of itself, but from the alley where we emerged just slightly downhill from the chapel, it appeared to rise like a mammoth and stand lit, a stone-cut yellow giant against the faint last breathes of a blue sky day fading into night. And I remember it being magical.

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That church rising like a monolith.

But mostly I remember sitting outside that döner stand and talking about the future and how it had no end. In a short week’s time I’d be able to pick up my car from the port of call where military vehicles were shipped. I’d finally be able to start driving around Europe. I loved the train, but I loved even more being able to go anywhere at any time. I remember how I didn’t even have an idea yet of where I would go, only that I would be driving through Germany and Europe like it was my home, because it had become that, though I didn’t feel it just yet. I remember telling John, “I’m going to get in that car and speed down the autobahn, M83 at full blast.” I remember saying it was “European music in a European car on a European highway” and I just wanted to feel the breeze from the open windows at ninety miles an hour.

And then I did, and the future never felt so bright.

I Didn’t Miss It At All

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on August 17, 2017

It was going to be my first time out of the country, or at least the country that was my new home. You see, in America, where I spent the first 24 years of my life, I had never crossed into a neighboring country such as Mexico or Canada. The distances were too far, the limits too great, the benefit too low. That last sentiment is surely wrong on all accounts, but it was the feeling I was given by my country – Mexico has nothing to offer, Canada is the same but colder. We never go, we never went.

But in Germany now for the first time, living and working with no end in sight, I had a grasp on the nearness of the countries, and by a large, unfilled whole in my working knowledge, I knew that each boundary meant separately unique, different, and succinct cultures and nations. I knew that each line was a defensive boundary built over hundreds and thousands of years and these simple lines meant new languages, new colors, new foods, new music, new politics, and new people. I had only been in Germany for six weeks but my appetite had grown immensely in the short time I had there. Each year in Belgium, the town of Bastogne celebrates its independence from Nazi Germany by staging a recreation of the march of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division that held during the siege of the Ardennes forest over the longest winter on earth, and pushed the Nazis back. There would be foot marches with citizens from around the continent, battle reenactments, regalia displays, parades, and booze of all kinds. I knew I had to go.

It was only a few months before while still in training in Virginia that I had purchased my first Norah Jones album, a CD of The Fall. That CD became a soundtrack to a room that I shared with the only person to understand me in the Army, and we played a long game of chess by moving a single piece at a time between our bunks. But when I got to Germany (as did my friend, although to another unit in another village nearby), I finally had access again to the internet. I decided I needed the rest of Norah Jones’s albums and went about getting them. In order, I listened to each of them in full.

So there, that month after arriving in Germany, I sat in the back of a Mercedes TMP, the kind the military purchases in lots throughout Europe to facilitate quick ease of transport for these types of events. It was a recreational event, but as one that promoted camaraderie with the local nationals, could be given a leave of absence and promoted throughout our unit. We were able to check out the TMPs and drive ourselves on the unit’s dollar. Everyone that was attending the event had been given pass to leave during the day on Friday, but there were a few of us stuck behind for the change of command ceremony to welcome the new battalion commander. As my reputation as a reporter always preceded me, I was selected to give the commencement and was among that small group leaving afterward. I didn’t know the sergeants I was leaving with well and took the entire back seat to myself, the floors stripped of any carpeting, the heater not working. And I sat there listening to all of Norah Jones while the roads passed by.

In Germany, there are no billboards or stores or gas stations on the side of the highway. There are farms and villages occasionally, but the highways were built to be out of the way of the people in the towns, and their rules regarding pollution keep it free of clutter and light and noise. The sky that day was a typical German sky, the kind I miss most; a deep grey throughout from the clouds that only just might drop rain, with small breaks of white, though the sun never shone through. The hills of Bavarian green grazed our sides for hours as first we passed Frankfurt, then Cologne, and continued west. Slowly, the hills became larger and the vastness of the forests grew in height. All the while the sky stayed green, and only occasionally a small mist might develop on the windows, but never a hard rain. The forest of oaks turned to large, upward columns of pine, and it’s the closest I ever got to a Vermont winter, all the way on the other side of the planet.

The first words were always the most important to me, from the moment I heard them: “As I sit and watch the snow fall…” It’s a feeling I always wanted since I was a child. To wake up and see the drifts of white descending to the ground, a new world unfolding over the one we walk through every day. I had never had that. But vast pieces of art, works of literature, and entire operas have been devoted to the snow. I had known it my whole life, but never seen these things other people talk about, the things that are dressed up in language to describe home, belonging, warmth. Snow always meant a sense of place to me – the idea that you could have a place to yourself under warmth of a fire while the snow fell outside. It wasn’t snowing on this day, but I knew it would soon, maybe days and weeks later, but I knew the snow was coming. I knew I would finally have the feelings I was never given during Christmas, during winter, during the times we should be alone and at peace. I sat there in the back of the van alone, listened to Norah, and stared at the pine and knew I would have my winter moment for the first time, soon.

I wasn’t talking, no one talking to me. There were no sounds of cars on the empty highway. There were no sights of people on a road miles from the nearest village. There was only the pine going by the thousands, and the sound of a piano in my ear.

I didn’t think of anything specific. I only thought of the general years and lifetime before these first few weeks abroad. And I didn’t miss it at all.

Mojave 3 – Bluebird of Happiness

Posted in Europe, Prose by johnsontoms on August 16, 2017

I have a playlist of 200 songs that remind me of the best, wildest, strangest years of my life, the sound track to my third life. This will be the first in a series chronicling just what a few of those songs means.

Rain pattered on the window as I stayed awake on the floor, eyes on the white, cantilevered ceiling. We were together on the floor unintentionally-intentionally because she was moving in two weeks and the furniture was already gone. This weekend was reserved for us to be together alone for the first time away from our friends, a chance to get closer. I drove us down to Munich that night in the dark, late on a Friday after I left work and picked her up from her home. The drive down was like the other times I’d driven to Munich on the autobahn, but a little darker and with a little more rain and with a girl I’d only just fingered the week before. It was her idea to go to Munich and I didn’t question the details, even now as I lay in a sleeping bag in an empty apartment.

The ceiling is the thing I remember most. How these types of homes in Germany and across Europe are so small, but so ample for a person. The spaces on the top floor are even worse, where we navigate the rooms that are built into the slopes of the exterior ceiling, one room drooping away from the center in this direction, the other room drooping in the opposite. It was like something out of all the black and white films I had ever seen, but I was living this one, a few minutes at time.

She was much younger than I, and I was only beginning to find out. She wanted to please me, do everything I asked, do anything I could think of and more, except for the few things she wasn’t ready to. Once we were through the door, and even while driving the two hours from Nuremberg, it was a constant series of questions about what I wanted, where I wanted to be, the things I wanted to do. I just wanted to fuck there in the apartment at some point over the weekend. After we parked my car that first night we went straight up to the apartment, dropped off our things, and out for dinner.

That night I learned that she wasn’t going to have sex with me. There on the carpet in a sleeping bag with two bottles of wine in us, I didn’t think much of it. But it was the morning I remember.

It was still raining but the clouds have a way of thinning out in Germany that provides enough high-grey light while raining and still keeping the sun from shining directly. I could see it was one of those days from the floor where I stared up at the ceiling. We were using her laptop computer for music, for the same reasons we were on the floor. It was silent as I woke up before her, dismissed myself to the bathroom and relieved myself of the night’s drinks. She had an eye open when I came back and so I turned on the computer thinking that I might get laid here.

I needed something quiet, peaceful, not overwhelming, and instantly I thought of the soundtrack to the O.C. Clicked onto youtube and started the first playlist I saw. We sat there on the floor necking and kissing and staring at each other before I moved my hands into her pants and really thought this time that she was too young and inexperienced, and I knew then why she wasn’t ready. Just never had before. She went down on me, and I knew from the way it ended that she’d never done that either.

I told her it was okay and stared back at the ceiling as she cradled into my shoulder, the rain still falling, the ceiling overhead illuminating with the rising sun and the soft words echoing over and over from the speakers: “Gotta find a way to get back home, gotta find a way back home.”

There are other things I remember. The locals in all the pubs celebrating the home team’s big victory, and the emptiness of being with a girl I knew I’d be leaving. I remember walking everywhere in the rain and sharing an umbrella that only sheltered one. I remember the weekend being like nothing I wanted, but leaving a lasting mark in my memory. And I remember, as much time as we spent in the apartment cooking food and drinking wine and laughing and not fucking, I turned the Mojave 3 on over and over again, time and time again, even though I’d just heard it for the first time during that rain-spilled Saturday morning. I remember lying there thinking of this girl and her wonderful innocence, and thinking that even as juvenile as the days had become, they were nothing less than sweet, and I remember thinking that even sweet has a place in my memory, like this day now holds. But mostly I remember lying on my back and staring up at that white ceiling, dotted with the shadows of the raindrops on the window, and I remember being hopeful.

I remember thinking that this was home. Not the girl, explicitly, nor Munich and Europe, necessarily, but the movements in my life. Movements forward had become my home and the only place I could truly be comfortable. Home for me will always be on the road.

Everywhere I go now, I take home, as a piece of mind, with me. Got to find a way back home.

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Before Me Lied A New Dawn

Posted in Europe, Prose by johnsontoms on December 28, 2013

Before me lied a new dawn.  It came in the form of green, rolling hills shaded orange as a clementine from the rising sun, dotted with dark tones from the line of trees just on the horizon, a bit of brush lining the creeks at the lowest point.  I had just filled my bag with a collection of the local lagers and Trappistes, enough to make merry myself and the few soldiers that marched along.  We hadn’t made it fifty meters down the trail before I stopped in a moment of clarity seen before only in the tales of Christ and Crusoe: this would be a new way forward.

Bastogne, as the scene unfolded.

Bastogne, as the scene unfolded.

Clarity there existed in the folding iron fence taken over by the grips of time.  Only a single cemented post remained upright, a half-rolled distance of chicken-wire pulling out from one side before stopping not at its destination but upon an indeterminate length of grass, the total of which enclosed nothing.  The cemented post was adorned with the artisanal etching of a rooster, as sure as the chicken that now clucked its way down the slow hill toward the faint amount of water nestled in the crest of the valley.  The valley of which rolled back up and over again and down and around on all sides like the bubbling sheets of water that move over a creek bed of rocks, themselves smoothed over with the washing of time.   This was Bastogne, Belgium.  The scene was lifted straight from a film or a history book, and the image was modern, timeless, and iconic all at once.  It looked like the last relics of the great war.

This was my first major trip since arriving in Germany and I wasn’t prepared.  Only the night before we had arrived at the township where we would stay, LaRoche en Ardennes, a 25-kilometer jaunt through the rising hills-turned-mountains that we couldn’t see because of our nighttime drive.  What I could see when we entered the city in darkness was the white river below the only street of the town, lit from the bulbs that illuminated its presence there in the village, a way for the residents to announce and honor the heart of their little town.  It seemed necessary to light it as a warning because of the sharp cliff walls that rose on either side as we drove toward the hotel pushing travelers to the waterline, and when we parked and exited the vehicles I could hear from all sides, all angles around me the hiiisssssss of the water as it passed quickly over the rocks.  The sound echoed off the rock walls and seemed to be coming from all corners, though I learned in reality a few short minutes later that it came from a river not even 20 centimeters deep, the water clear as day and moving fast the wind.  There was not a single shrub or sandbar to stand in its way, only the multitude of rocks and stones that made for the water its tambourine to play.  I hadn’t even seen the mountains or hills yet and already I knew things were changing.

As the sun came over the hills that next morning when I stumbled onto the scene of the fence, as the world opened itself to me, I learned then that certain things were imminently more important than my own triviality.  We were there to celebrate and commemorate the liberation of the Ardennes by the Allied Forces at a place and during a time remembered in America as the Battle of the Bulge for the bulging appearance of the offensive front line drawn on a map, or by Germans as Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein, “Operation Watch on the Rhein,” or more simply as the French call it Bataille des Ardennes, “Battle of the Ardennes.”  We were told to go in uniform, to march in uniform, and (for my own purposes) to drink in uniform, that all and sundry would be doing the same.  “Everyone’s going to be in some kind of uniform and marching along,” I’d heard.  I didn’t know that it would be an entire city and valley full of persons in costume, a veritable army-sized element of patrons in the full regalia of the German SS and another half decked out in the uniforms of the Allied American forces, complete with 101st Airborne Division patches, the Screamin’ Eagles.  The tanks sat on the edge of town, the forest-green motorcycles whirred by with troops riding in sidecars, Jeeps filled the streets and all around were the sounds of joy and cheer erupting from the residents, the revelers, and the soldiers, one and each united in a reverie equal to the transmogrification of souls.  We were nearer to heaven.

Total and complete strangers were best friends meeting in the streets, the alleys, the muddied foot-trodden paths from farm to farm outside the town where the march went along.  Stories of battles, fables of relatives who fought, invitations to trade pictures and gear and patches and souvenirs and drinks, the many drinks.  And where language wasn’t enough, we’d shuffle and dance the language of our ancestors until the meaning was understood.  The language was probably better then, after all.  People came together.  I had reason to feel a part of something, rather than as a spectator.

For all the things I’ve done to this point in my life, it was as if I were watching a show unfold before me.  And taking then the memories of those events past, the end result is what? The accumulation of experiences as memories, as events I’ve witnessed to be logged, categorized, and set upon like a trophy to dignify a life deemed lived.  “Indeed, the true adventurer must come to realize, long before he has come to the end of his wanderings, that there is something stupid about the mere accumulation of wonderful experiences,” as Miller says.  This had been the way of life, the modern American living.  Justly it means predilection, predictability, soothsaying for the masses.  We are set about in a world that has been meticulously charted, categorized, and defined in such and so many delicate patters, void of embarrassment, danger, and consistent of sterility and sanitation that to row about its waters is merely to navigate the Antietam during a drought.  What then?  Is it so difficult then to obtain employment in a nation filled with employers and employees? No.  The details may change, but derivation from the mean is nil.  Think then of all the events encompassing the greater moments of your life and realize, how abstract and void of bravado we have been – graduating high school, then college, playing sports and attending concerts, getting married and having children.  All of these earmarks to our outstanding existence come hedged with no bets.

A few weeks after returning from Bastogne I was in Rome.  Roma, Italia, of Lazio.  Wine soaked.  Wine flooded.  For five days I operated in the hazy confines of swimming pool above ground, seeing things with one eye closed.  It was New Year’s and Italian wine was served 5€ to the bottle, a price for something so exquisite I got the bargain by drinking the city’s proper share.  If you had locked me up into Amontillado’s cask I’d have said good riddance.  And this was for all its good because I was not alone.  There in a city of a couple million came down a few more million, something I that surprised me but one I should’ve expected.  And in all, there were but a few recourses for the days and nights – to see and imbibe all at once and without end the beauty of the Eternal City.  Without sleep and without rest and without ceasing there as the sun rose and made way to moonlit empty villas was a city drunk on spirits, of both the fermented and mystical kind.  Where in Bastogne I had been enveloped in an era, tucked away into a time of being as if a vacuum had pulled me directly into 1945, Rome had placed me within a bubble.  For the first time I could focus on the knowledge that history as I know it is mine and mine alone.  Nothing about what the Romans built and accomplished some two- and three-thousand years before had bearing on my behavior in that moment, and it was beautiful.

The ghost town of Rome at night.

The ghost town of Rome at night.

I didn’t go there expecting any one thing.  I wasn’t trying to raise Caesar’s ghost or channel Marcus Aurelius and didn’t think to impress Constantinople.  Their histories created the city as it was in their own time, like the millions of cities around the world that have each their founders, but these cities do not persist because of these ancient heroes.  The cities persist because of the people, and for five days I was a citizen of Rome.  I did my best to be a modern Roman – morning for pasta and wine, a birra walking the stone way surrounding the Coliseum, grilled eggplant and wine for lunch, a foot tour of the Panteon and a bottle of wine by the Fontana di Trevi, and the night into the Campo de Fiori, drinks in hand, football kicked through the square, music playing in all corners, fireworks thrown up into the air, and later, late when each boy and girl have tucked away in bed or asleep on the ground and the streets are empty, there I embarked to see the city at night.  It was like seeing a ghost.  Nothing could successfully describe the effect of removing at night the millions of people present by day.  Like standing in the empty stadium lit only by moonlight – where thousands just earlier gathered now sat not even electricity.

But it was all so fluid and tangible, so very real.  I didn’t meet anyone on that voyage into the heart of Rome but I never felt disconnected.  I was for the first time a part of something, as I was in Bastogne.  I wasn’t just a fish in a sea full of sharks, but a member of a school.  Each of us independent but linked, moving in succession.  I saw the greater works of the things before me, of me, after me, the depths of the human spirit equaled by its imagination.  And for all the things we’ve done and continue to do that keep us from moving forward, the simple moments of splendor often remain as the most serene.  Getting drunk seems so naïve, but drinking with a few million of your new best friends can be metamorphic.  I’ll always remember being in a crowd so thick that I was lifted up by the weight of the people around me, thousands in the middle of the Forum Romana, a backdrop of a glowing Coliseum, a white-lit Arc di Constantinople, ahead the golden Capitale.

Each day like that was built upon the predilection that anything truly was possible.  The rest of the year for me, before being trapped in the desert for nine months of a deployment, was an experiment in time and possibility.  The experiment was where and how, the possibility as always – women.

Could never be sure when or where but in the back of my mind always is a woman.  Not one, though sometimes, but always all in general.  The savagery of such notion is absurd.  Desire for romance is just too strong to be anything less than the primal urge.

So put me then into a world unknown and leave inside me the pursuit of women, of romance, of raw sex.  I felt like Sir Edmund Hillary crossing the icy poles.  I knew what would be out there, but not how to get it, to hold it, in what its forms would be.  This made the evenings sparkle with possibilities.  Over those few months I spent three consecutive days in the sewers of the Carnival abyss, drenched in the beer and liquor and wine that seemingly fell from the sky during German Fasching, a Mardi Gras to end them all.  I discovered the beauty of the Czech laissez faire, the sheer fuck-all way of life that gripped a nation formerly torn of war and made for it the simplicity of a group of friends in a bar to be the highest nobility.  I learned that Easter Sunday was not too sacred for sex in a club bathroom stall.  I learned to dance, rather, to become absorbed by music in a club, to swing and sway and let roll my head there on the floor and become only the body moving in the crowd, high on as much ecstasy in its divine form as in its narcotic form, in only the ways a seedy underground Czech club can make it so.  I learned to care so little about the atmosphere that, placed in the middle of the woods and with no one around, I could achieve the same effect given the right music and the right woman.  And I learned that sometimes never seeing someone again isn’t always never.

Watching the women traverse Makartsteg.

Watching the women traverse Makartsteg.

I learned also that I could do all this alone and for myself.  I needed to do all this alone and for myself.  No one could tell me the right ways to fly across the planet to see about a girl, because there is no right way and I couldn’t have been wrong at all because I tried.  No one could make it easier to walk the streets of Helsinki cold and alone looking for a hotel and having, in a world and a language as foreign as fire to the Neanderthal, to speak up and ask for help.  No one opens my mouth in those moments and says for me the words that come out.  No one made for me the friends I have all over the world, no one created for me the scenarios in which I operated and drank and fucked and danced and swam and sang and drew out the sweet nectar of life by seeing just seeing that all those pictures aren’t pictures, they aren’t the real thing, the real thing is there wherever it is waiting to be seen or held like the mighty Neva river rolling through the middle of St. Petersburg because it can’t be told or written or seen in a picture how cold the wind feels off the sheet of ice covering its dark waters during the Russian Christmas.  I know what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel and I know what it feels like to stumble down the muddy hill to Gunpowder Pub and I know it feels like to wake up in the snow and I know what it looks like to see the first Christmas tree in Riga and I know what it means to die as the bulls go running by in Pamplona, but I can’t tell you these things.  These things are infinitely possible but they live in me, as I experienced them.

The history of these stories and these ideas cannot change inside me and likely have no power elsewhere.  So go the best laid plans of the lunatic.

This new way forward unfolded before me as a result of my tabula rosa – I simply didn’t know what to expect.  I greeted everything with the rosy fondness of a puppy.  The nights around were each and all unique in their ways, down even to the women and their languages and the clothes they wore.  It was beautiful to guess the way nationalities would look, the predominant hair colors, the hoppiness of the beer, the strength of the coffee, the chances that she would speak English.  It was all too much too often and every day then became a chance at something new.  When it wasn’t new anymore it broke my heart.

Coming back from nine months in the desert I tried to do it all over again.  Every day was a sensational grab at the feelings I had created.  Where I had before sat on the banks of the Gulf of Finland at 10pm and had yet to see the sun reach the horizon, watching the ice float across the water in mid-April and see the way the light bounced off the water and onto the clean white walls of Helsinki’s buildings, there I had been birthed.  Born again for a new way of seeing.  Such a magnificent moment that now in its absence sat a life unfulfilled.  As if every moment of my being had led to those moments, those moments walking the pasture hills of the south German farmland, the moments walking along the Salzach, drinking a Stiegl, dreaming of Mozart, and staring at the women walking over the Makartsteg, the moments taking shots from the beer cart in the middle of a street filled with Scooby-Doos, pilots, firefighters, pirates, Snow Whites, and fairies all at once drinking and dancing as the parade goes by, the moments getting jerked off on the outside patios of an upstairs club, the moments trying just to hold someone’s hand walking through Töömemagi, or the moments spent idly, doing nothing, just sitting and watching the sun go down over the high-rise of old buildings, half-liter of Weißen in hand.  A fool’s errand to chase these again.

A quote that has always stuck with me came from Norman Mailer – “the only faithfulness people have is toward emotion’s they’re trying to recreate.”  The world of the sights and sounds I had been before living in Kuwait became more like gold the further removed in time it sank, and like any fool I wanted to do it all over again.  What I didn’t realize, and still struggle with, is that it isn’t possible.

There have been no beginnings, new possibilities, no mistake.  But these new possibilities must be constructed in new ways.

I couldn’t go out there alone anymore.  I came back from that desert and went into a new world, but I wasn’t alone.  I went to Riga and watched the world’s oldest Christmas tree celebration, but I wasn’t alone.  I spent five days in a basement apartment drinking wine and building fires, but I wasn’t alone.  I walked along the Pilsêtas Kanal and fed the ducks who slid down the ice for a piece of bread, but I wasn’t alone.  And those moments not alone were magical.  In their own way it was possible again to get that new, infinite feeling, because I wasn’t doing it the same way as before.  The feelings of joy and serendipity were linked to newness and to difference and change.

Some weeks after being there in Latvia and finding reinvigoration I was in Slovenia.  The cold, forested, mountainous nation of Slovenia would be a winter trip for winter’s sake.  Friends of mine organized the journey to find the slopes, but I went to find the snow.  Snow, and by that I mean to walk and be there in the mountains, to hike and be alone, to think and ponder and figure out where the year would be ahead.  Slovenia became the first trip I would go on to signify how the year would go, as all the events just before had been a celebration of leaving the desert.  This now, Slovenia, would be just life as I was living.

It was beautiful, make no mistake.  Mountains as high and as steep as these I had never seen before.  Coming through the slopes in Austria I woke on the bus to a scene truly picaresque – the cliffs of the mountains nearly straight up on all sides and in all directions, a sheer rock face of grey and black too steep to hold snow at any height, high up further than the eye would allow before being blocked by clouds, for miles and miles and miles and then, finally, just finally, the clouds break and from behind pours out the bluest sky with the brightest sun, there just behind at all times and waiting to be seen.  It seemed as though the sun were always hiding this high up, or else it would not be so ready to make light with just a single break in the cloud line.  Otherwise I suppose there would be more grey, but we were as high as the airplanes that break the cloud line on takeoff.

The snow was everywhere.  It was so thick that I couldn’t venture off trail to see anything other than the city where we camped.  Our hotel was on the other side of the main lake the in town of Bled, and it became very apparent that the city existed on tourism and bypassers, a place to see with not much to offer when the timing wasn’t right.  Everywhere there pointed wooden arrows with distances indicating the paths to take to certain peaks, but with snow so deep that I’d be up to my knees it wasn’t in the cards for me to disappear, should I not want to disappear terminally.  So instead I walked the city streets and spent the days and evenings with my legs draped there over the walls of the castle that sat atop the mountain overlooking the lake and town below, the only hike made possible by the carved stone walkways on both sides.  Evenings were spent in the same bar, writing some, reading some, passing time and staring out wondering what could have been, what I could’ve done, what should’ve happened, and thinking of god knows what.  If I had put my mind together I’d have seen it for what it was, the year ahead.

Slovenia down below.

Slovenia down below.

A few weeks later it was Dresden, and a few weeks after that it was Nurnberg again.  In no time it was Wurzburg every weekend, and I couldn’t figure out where the possibilities had gone.  The more disappointment I found the harder I tried to recreate the circumstances by which I found it.  If this bar didn’t work then another might, or if this city didn’t have it then surely another would.

What I never realized was that the possibilities were in me.  They emanated from me outward and created the way forward.  The things I was looking for created by the wormholes sprung from my chest cavity and where I deviated from the path I created for myself unhappiness, depression, no possibilities.  I lost that tabula rosa – I let the things I learned about Europe, about the people, the food, the wine, the drinking and dancing and way of living dictate my behavior and at each one a dead end.  The truth was still out there, but maybe it wasn’t truth anymore that I needed.

The story of the year is that I’ve struggled to accomplish much of anything so long as it had nothing to do with finishing the book I’m writing.  In so far as that is left undone, it seems that no other thing will bring any amount of satisfaction.  And so I wandered through Europe as if it were a desert, lost and unseeking of anything.  Just theeeerrrrrrrrreeeee… just there.  Drifting.

I found it again.  A couple of times it was there.  Just as the sun had risen on that Belgian morning to tell me I was living, that feeling that shook my bones, it came back to me.

It was there on top the mountains of Sardegna, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.  There in just a few moments the winter broke to spring broke to summer and from a peak of maybe 300-meters up we looked down from the centuries-old tower to see below the beaches of Porto Ferro, lapped up again and again by the icy, dark waters coming in from the west, the sun falling below the horizon, that line so straight and wide and unending that our vision could follow it to the ends of the earth of Copernicus weren’t so right.  All the colors blended perfectly from the highest deep sea blue point in the starry night sky to the bright orange dot still sitting there in the middle of sight, laid out over the now black waters with rippling white lines flowing out and past us, the low, buzzing sound of the waves moving by with the wind and nothing but a straight drop down all the way to the rocks below.

Porto Ferro and the mountain we climbed.

Porto Ferro and the mountain we climbed.

It was there again that first night in Pamplona.  We hadn’t even run from the bulls yet, had only been in the city for an hour or so, had barely put our bags in the room before the excitement became overwhelmed us and we sat out on foot for no direction particular.  In short we came across the town hall, the center of the festival, the signal of the event, picture of the city, the place that from its position outward came all the stories and images of the revelers in white running to and from and with the bulls so large and horned and carrying death and with it carrying life.  The Town Hall is a building so magnificent that it was instantly recognizable as we came across at first by accident.  There in a square foyer no larger than 70 meters by 25 meters rose the four-story building, possibly 20 meters wide, but straight out of the ground like a grand sequoia, and nearly as austere.  Each level ordained with a magnificent amount of artisanship, the middle floor lined with all the flags of the Basque Country and Spain itself, orange from the ages of dust and sand and dirt and time that have passed at its feet, black all around from the dark, still Spanish night.

Pamplona's town hall.

Pamplona’s town hall.

One week later I began a 160-kilometer foot march in the Netherlands, and there I found the feeling.  The world’s oldest and longest organized foot march, the Vierdaagse, or Four Days March.  There were over 40,000 people participating in the grueling march, 40 kilometers (25 miles) a day, and over 100,000 people each day lining the streets to cheer us on, and every one of them with a beautiful story and a more beautiful smile.  I have never in my life seen the kindness of humanity come forth so much as on the routes of that march, as thousands joined together to encourage one another to finish line.  One those days it felt good to be a human being.

After a day of the Vierdaagse.

After a day of the Vierdaagse.

These things brought the feeling back to me because of the gravity of their existence.  Either too beautiful, too important, or too alive to be neglected.  It made me feel alive.  It made me unimportant in the best way.  It made me see the earth, it made me see the planet, it made me see the other things out there than my own problems.  It made me feel like the last man, like the only one with the secret.  It made me glad to be alive and to be a human being.  It made me feel like the infinite was still possible.  It made me see the ending and the beginning.  It made me feel love, it made me feel hate.  It made me see the darkness and the light and it made me happy for both.  It made me regret nothing behind and be hopeful for everything ahead.  These moments made me feel as the traveler charting new lands, standing on the pillars of the mountains overlooking the valleys below where no man has gone before, trodden with the antelope and deer and the bear and the moose and the lizards and the owls and the ox and the parrots and the spiders and the ants and all the things that for no good reason sprang up from the muck of the fire of the rock of this universe and for no good reason persist in spite of all forces against.  Belgium in the sun, Rome at night, Helsinki by the water, Pamplona with its bulls, Sardegna over the sea, the plains of the Netherlands, these places, these places, these places at once and infinitely possessing of all the beauty and the possibilities in the world that for just a few minutes at a time I could live forever.

But there have been places that for these same reasons are empty.  There in Paris I nearly got the feeling – Paris is a city of outstanding amazement, a true achievement in human creativity.  But the people made the city in all its splendor, and they’ve since forsaken it.  It left me as it is, empty.

And that was the end of it.  I landed in Atlanta a few weeks after that.

END

** This is just disposed garbage I didn’t include at the end of that article.**

In between I went to the Christmas markets and la di da and it was all the same.  All around the world really it wasn’t that much different, everyone pays taxes, everyone gets drunk, and in the middle are the possibilities we create for ourselves.  I wanted this to be about the beauty of it all, the wonder, the merriment, but I couldn’t avoid the duality.  I would be lying if I told you that all was well there.  But at least things were different.

Atlanta, I mean fuck.  I was instantly depressed when the wheels touched down and I looked up to the supposedly largest international American airport and saw only the backside of your local Wal-Mart, or so the terminals seemed.

I’m not sure if the rest of the world has the answers, but I know this land of freedom does not.  Maybe it did, but we lost it.  It probably didn’t have high enough profit margins.  Things like quantifiable beauty and happiness don’t gain fiduciary overhead like parking lots with gross amounts of halogen lights, a neon billboard every 50-meters, crumbling concrete highways left to rot in the forests and plains, trash dumpsters left unsecure and spilling over the yard, highways larger than capacity requires, everything lit like a fucking Christmas tree for no reason in particular, cheap and fabricated homes that look less like places suitable for living than for models of despair and homes for the criminally insane, trucks everywhere trucks everywhere trucks trucks trucks everywhere because gasoline that’s why, a McDonald’s on every corner, “I don’t think this town has a library?”, be careful because we can’t trust anyone, and just being normal, yes, just being normal is good financial sense.

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