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.

Advertisements

Thinking of Things

Posted in Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on June 6, 2018

Waking up in the frigid cold unexpectedly, or with the rising sun warming your tent. Outside are mountains or valleys or maybe cliffs and blue skies, and from the drunken stupor you remind yourself, the natural world is just outside. You can feel that you’re apart of it, and though your bones creak and the head might spin, everything orients at some point together: whatever I’ve done and am going to do next, I’m doing it out here. You’re probably alone, and you probably spent the evening watching the sun go down over the rising earth in the great distance, nothing between you both but those hills and the green forests that line them, or even better, the sandy bottom of a Chihuahuan desert that makes existence seem impossible. The only sounds from the wind gently brushing your temporary home, and you step out into the light. The memories of the night before, spectacular: you were just here because it was a holiday, but it always seemed to find ways to marvel you: the surprise fireworks show you watched from above at 7000’ atop the tallest mountain in Virginia, or the full moon that set for the only person sleeping at Wind Rock on the Appalachian Trail, or the sunset that turned the sky orange from a thousand miles away and across the full length of Arizona, so it seems, seen from a sky island while standing in a cathedral of rock, prayers sent to the heavens. Even the ones that hurt, like a surprise freeze in July at Bluff Springs Waterfall where you only brought a hammock because surely it was summer, and starting the fire in the morning meant coming back to life.

Breakfast needs to be made, the gear packed, the head leveled, water. But the air is crisp, cool when you need it after a warm night, warm when you need it after the cold. It always knows how to greet you. It remembers, just like you, everything that happened, and that’s perhaps the driving force – you’re never certain why you like to do something, something that can be so much work, seem so much hassle. But you do know that you enjoy most, above many things, looking back and knowing that you did it. You climbed the tallest mountain three times, or hiked 100 miles in the Dutch plains. You slept on the Persian Gulf and saw the sun settle in the dust, or you ran five miles at zero degrees Fahrenheit. You went down into the Grand Canyon and washed the cold cold waters of the Colorado River across your face just as the canyon walls went dark, having made it to your destination with only a daylight to celebrate having made it. Or maybe you just walked through a farm, on the other side of the planet, repeatedly. You spent your days in only the night, feeling the cold air slide off the grey stone of the buildings in the city center, lit like gothic dreams. The only light from the lampposts that guide the way through the alleys, nothing more, just the fog of breath floating in your face from the cigarette burning at your lip.

You think of these things. You think of them and you think of being younger. You’re not old now but you remember what it was like to be young, to be sad, to be free. And you stand there now, alone, out of the tent for the first time that morning, the sparkle of the dew glittering off the bead of the pins of the cacti, or rolling with the steady stream from the spring that starts out of the rock just over the grassy hill where are the daisies grow. These things are real, and they remind you of the life that flickers now before your eyes. It’s the looking back that’s so great. It’s the visions and endless streams of faces and markers and waters and mountains and fields and formations of people that have come and gone, and its romantic attachment to the idea that it’s still out there. That’s why you keep going back. You surround yourself with the wild wild world to remember that it’s still out there.

But mostly it’s the memories. Sometimes they come back one by one, and sometimes not at all. Sometimes you have look back through your notes to remember a name, or to see a place in your mind, or sometimes it only takes a song and you’re right back in that exact moment when it all came together, life music feeling spirit freedom earth joy the infinite. And at other times its all the memories all at once and it’s too much to handle. It’s the bars and the plane rides and the ice on the path and the feet in the snow and the Salzach and the flooding desert rains and the college graduations and the long slow burning glow of the sun that hangs its head every night in the shadows of the West Texas plains and just the feeling of being on the move to somewhere new, and the feeling of having it all at your fingertips. You remember it all, in clear and vivid detail, every bit as much a blessing as a curse. To always remember such joys, but to never forget the rapid pages of time and the people it leaves behind.

And in the cold morning air you reach out to grab them. You’d like to say hello, wish them well. But the only blessing they’ll have is that they live on in your memories, worthy of being not forgotten. And they’ll never know. So you must remember. Remember to remember.

Some Things I’ll Never Do

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on May 16, 2018

These are some things I’ll never do. They’re common enough that maybe you’ll do some, but also you too might never do most, if you really get down to it. Things I’ll never do:

-Travel in space.

-Be the president.

-Speak Greek.

-Read Chinese.

-Visit all 195 nations.

-Swim the English Channel.

-See the North Pole.

-Drive NASCAR.

-Summit Everest.

-Live in New York City.

-Master the guitar.

-Be a major professional athlete.

-Direct a film.

-Hold elected office.

-Study medicine.

-Fly a plane.

-Build a house, by my own hand or otherwise.

-Hit a home run.

-Sail a boat.

-Live debt free.

-Patent an invention.

-Practice law.

-Win a Grammy.

-Cultivate a farm.

-Harvest a crop.

-Loom a shirt.

-Conduct an orchestra.

-Compete in the Olympics.

-Discover a star or planet.

-Walk uncharted land.

Many, many people have done these things many, many times, and it feels like they’re all just there to grab. Reach out and do a few of these things. But, really, trying to get even just one requires the sacrifice of much of the rest for all of time. You won’t get to space by conducting an orchestra, and you can’t loom a shirt trying to hit a home run.

But, each one still feels possible. The fear that keeps us from doing even just one, I think, is the fear that we’ll only ever do just one. It’s terrifying to have to pick just one, because it would mean the rest are impossible. I don’t ever want to think that I might not be able to do any or all of them, but here I am at 31 and most of them are closed to me already.

What’s left that I haven’t done but I might still could? Run a marathon? Start a business? Join the peace corps? Raise a child? Grow a crop?

It’s about finding the things worth our time. The age of information has spoiled us – we want it all – and in the end we get nothing, for only ourselves to blame.

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.

Something About Animism

Posted in poem, Prose by johnsontoms on May 1, 2018

Disintegration, like time and memories and feelings and it all goes to waste, no proof of ever having lived. The places where all told sundry will rest, the annals of nothingness, the universe in motion, should we all rapture and the new planetary beings be unable to read English or Sanskrit or what have you might survive a few millennia of earthly rot. Nothing is what will be left of you and I and everything you love and hate in equal measure. The rocks keep spinning, maybe not this one, but some rocks somewhere, a few collisions, possibly another spark, and another line of history that will just as surely return to void like all before and every after. Dissolution in motion.

Let it read then like poetry. Let the life then be the lifeline. Let the living do the thing. Let all the birds sing a rosy song, and leave nothing for the afterlife. We are here to live until we die.

We will only live and we will only die, in that order, and not more than once. If you live bright enough, a few of the living will remember you until their turn to die. Everyone takes a turn, even the memory of you. The memory of you will die, just like time and space. In continuum we exist and in continuum we cease. Perpetuity is the only faith, death the only truth. In death’s absolute life must exist, and they tango, one to the other but always one on to the other, no new partners. Life and only death. Only life and death.

Negotiations in the Desert

Posted in Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on February 21, 2018

The sound came in as if from outer space, bumbling easily along on waves of activity like gentle beams from outside the known, a message of peace from the unknown. It sounds like night descending without relent, no more tomorrows. Just a long bleeding line of darkness.

That was the feeling out there in the desert. The pattern is familiar and the refrain is soothing, but it looms with regret, or even somber acceptance. It is an acquiescence – “no more false promises.” Somehow, in spite of the better part of this automatic life promising greater if not just simply other things than anything like this, we wake up in the desert. And then we wake up in the desert again the next day and the day after that and on again that way until someone of importance tells you to board a plane and go home. This could be metaphorical, but for me it was literal. And the notion of having a place to be is now senseless.

Home becomes the unknown and then rightfully dissolves. Familiarity, comfort, being in a place of belonging, these sensations are after all this time now relegated to the sound of kicking larger stones across smaller stones that line the sand floor during the walk to the dining hall, sitting on one concrete pillar for a cigarette while staring at the concrete pillars directly across that provide a blast shelter to every building and road and become ubiquitous, or rising early in the dark to see the one spectacular and humane thing available that is the cold, cold rising desert sun striped in purple and red across the long, flat orange and yellow horizon only to curse the same sun mere hours later as it melts a pair of boots to the cement and pasting the wind-blown sand onto skin and into hair.

704531_10102560701765010_625411215_o.jpg

The sunset from the back of the USS Ponce, November 2012.

These are things we’ve never done and certainly were never meant to do. We run timed miles on uphill roads along chain link fences hundreds of miles from the nearest Quonset hut. We drag boxes of water bottles over a hundred yards into our tents and stack them five feet high so the single stream of chilled air from the vent can cool the bottles to a drinkable temperature. We each take up a hobby or two that will fill our time and do it over and over again every day. We have all the time in the world and somehow we didn’t do all the things we wanted. I wrote a book, mostly. Two people have read it in its entirety.

I’m writing it again, differently this time, though the thing remains the same. Because the memories can’t be swatted away enough. “Heartache one more chance for you, All those things in the days before.” I sat there alone, at a desk, in the tents, in the tents that were our offices, in concrete corners of concrete towers alone with the wind-whipped trash to just get a minute to myself, or on Sundays in a half-crooked lawn chair tucked away in a dried-up wash berm behind the mobile shower unit that didn’t work any longer, the berm high enough to block the light from the flood lamp over my shoulder and the sky just dark enough to see the stars through the sand in the nighttime sky. Those moments were simulacrums, facsimiles, representations of things I knew in forms I’d never known before and never experience again. It was a series of negotiations.

All the while using these fake plastic moments, we’re left with the memories of things we can’t any longer see. Foods, persons, clothes, weather patterns, foliage, sleep. These things are replaced with choruses of indignation, collective shouts, grunts to the familiar. We churn. And somehow amidst the time lost, an actual year of life and choice that cannot be taken back, we replace our acknowledged home with this open air prison. Coming back from the unknown, we long for more. There is never more comfort than in a life on the edge. And soon, memories replace memories. “Memory leaving what you knew, former times how they follow you.” We now think only of the desert, we think only of outer space. In outer space, the worries of man whither to dust, wash to energy. It is a place of wonder.

How to get back? The strange machinations that made it possible are treacherous, impossible, and I wouldn’t wish them on anyone. It could be that a desire to their effect is evidence of my crippling. I too have become unhinged. But I think of these modes, these methods, these negotiations, and I think of a time when I was at my highest frequency. I was alert, I was kinetic. I was interstellar. And whenever “Streetlights fall on hollow night, I see up ahead what could be.” I see the dark and I am not afraid. I see the dark and I do not wait for the light.

I try to picture myself in the desert and think of the work. The good, terrible, painful work of getting it all down, putting it to paper as much as putting it to rest. A true literary history must be told, of all that exists out in the open. There are no more stories, only the things that have been done. There are no more fantasies, only the horrors of man.

I’ll let you know when I get mine down again. It’s not about the desert, though, but a time on the way there. And aren’t we all on our way on to the desert.

467387_10102572334243430_600024167_o.jpg

I was there once, in the desert.

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.

On Plans

Posted in Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on December 2, 2017

The least flawed. 

I remember when looking up from the television in my dorm room when the voice called out. The door was open because that’s how I listen to music, but also because that’s how I wanted people to hear my music, to acquiesce. The voice was female and in a split second the mind wanders, who is this, what does she look like, will she like me, what am I wearing, what do I say, before computing the question “Have you heard the new album?” and, not knowing that one existed, answering with “Oh, when did it come out?”

Transatlanticism had been playing through the speakers, loudly, out into the hallway of the 11th floor of the Jester East dormitory, a building that housed 4,000 underclassman at the University of Texas at Austin, a time in 2005 when that total was more than the population of my hometown. The album by Death Cab for Cutie had come out just two years prior, and in my adolescent state of education in the sweet, sweet, late teenage years, I had selfishly neglected to listen to it: it was adored by some people within my realm of influence that I frankly didn’t like, and rejected it on the basis of keeping myself at arms reach. Now, just three months after graduating high school, I myself could acquiesce and consume this album on my own, for in that short period of time I had already moved away from home, moved into a place of my own, and started a new life. This day, the day the girl called into my room from the hallway of our co-ed dormitory, was only two weeks into that new life, and this was a moment I remember: things are different now.

There weren’t any decorations on the walls of my cubed room yet, and I don’t think I was wearing a shirt. I was playing with the cords that connected the stereo resting on a steel tower that contained as a totem pole the refrigerator I shared with my roommate, the television I brought from home, and on top the speakers that I was using to blast indie music throughout the hall. It wasn’t much, but it was home now, and it didn’t keep this girl from stopping on her way to her own room.

She was beautiful, was my first thought. And she’s asking me a question in fondness, in bonding. I don’t know this person, but we have shared musical tastes, which is enough to call out to others, it seems. It was such a surreal sequence to be in a place for the first time, here among strangers, and have simple, friendly conversations for the first time. As before I had rejected a piece of music because I disliked the people who recommended it, here I didn’t the girl and could take her suggestions swiftly, and she was gorgeous.

“It came out a couple days ago,” she said. “Come down to room 1156 and I’ll let you borrow the CD.”

The serendipity that swelled inside of me couldn’t be matched, the thought of this person so casually opening their self to me, just to share a piece of music that we had in common. In the few minutes that passed between throwing on a shirt and walking down the hallway, all sorts of ideas can pop into your head: does she study the same degree I am, is she involved in my groups, will I see her again, what’s her schedule like, will we become friends, am I going to hang out with her right now, would she like to get lunch tomorrow, and more. But I rounded the long corner and came to her door a few ways down, which was propped open also. She saw me in the threshold before I could speak and had the CD ready on her desk. She rose to pass it to me. “Just bring it back whenever you’re done.” She started to turn, but caught herself. “Oh, sorry, I’m Elisa by the way.” She quickly turned and began busying herself as if nothing could bother her, and these things just happened. I took the gift back to my room and set about adding the album to my digital library.

The album was called Plans, whose monument to time I still adore. Plans. They never seem to go the way we imagine.

 

That was September 2, 2005, a Friday. I took the CD back to Elisa that day and we crossed paths a few times more throughout the semester and the year we spent on the same floor of the L-shaped hallway, the males on one bend and the females on the other. A few people toward the middle took the effort to become the party-room for the entire floor and I was always invited every time they passed by continually open doorway, music playing out. But by then I had made friends of my own and extended the reach of my influence beyond those I was coincidentally living near. But that day always lasts, and probably definitely because of the album, its themes, and its body of work.

 

It starts with a single, hollow chord rasping away from a static filled organ, like a church hymn rising slowly in low-fidelity. Soon another chord rises higher, and the third starts quickly with after with a mood that is both familiar and warm, a rush of emotion starting instantaneously: this sounds like all the things I’ve ever head before with all the things I could never imagine, at once. A chance at something new. Knowing the name of the opening track, Marching Bands of Manhattan, places an even larger emphasis on the sublime. Like marching bands in Times Square, we hope for the same grandeur in our own existence. Plans.

Coincidentally for me, this came at exactly that time my life resembled such assembly. The album remains for me, by definition, the least flawed I’ve ever heard. From start to finish, there are no moments of complaint. Death Cab for Cutie was, unbeknownst to me at the time, an already decade old band that was just finding their footing in the mainstream, and I think looking back creating an entire sub-genre of music that now fills record stores and radio waves. But where Transatlanticism opened the door, Plans made everything possible. It is canon.

Plans encapsulates through its lyrical and musical combination the truest centers of both crescendo and nuance. It manages to both swell rapturously and remain rooted in the heart at the same time, balancing a growth of emotion so intense that we are super-welmed, while sounding throughout like our favorite song that we’ve heard thousands of times. It can manage to give us new emotions upon every listen while continuing to bring up the same old memories. I believe its longevity persists for the purpose that our lives are the same in each moment: all the time unknown ahead with all the time behind following still. Plans does not deviate from your existence. It is the least flawed.

Song to song, upon every listen and even now as I write this, I restructure my favorite moments. Halfway through the album with the playing of Your Heart Is an Empty Room, begins a description of a room burned down and the ashes still smoldering. And just as we hear that the room is our own heart, a rising, hopeful two-note echo emerges from the guitar that replaces any tension with a sound that defines our new beginning. That simple, two-note rapture is one of my favorite moments in the album, and it defines the ability of each, or the album in total, to rise up so ceremoniously, and yet be actual nothing at the same time: compositionally the rhythm and the melody do not change, and yet you feel moved. There are many more moments like this on the album. It is Death Cab’s burst of light into the darkness, and their hope for the future.

And just as Plans fractures near the end, asking, “who’s going to watch you die?” we are greeted again with crescendo, again with nuance. I simply cannot understand how someone, this band and its members, can find such a way to do so much with seemingly so little. Waiting for the crescendo at the end of What Sarah Said, we are swept away in the rising fortissimo of the end. And yet, again, compositionally, nothing really happens. Instead of climbing the mountain, we are merely swept away to some unknown end, as if choosing to drift out to sea. And it feels like home.

Before the end, we are imposed: “I’m not who I used to be.” That is the way it goes of making plans.

And so, Plans remains the least flawed in all its individual moments and in each in total sequence. The same can be said for all the lives still living with plans of their own.

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.

388473_10101375338482530_1073234448_n.jpg

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.

425079_10102999433942210_1792124862_n.jpg

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.

524841_10102999434176740_293412093_n.jpg

…   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …

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.