Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Nothing but birds

   There's a Mary Oliver poem about a tree. She sees a tree. Stares at its silhouette. And then the tree rises. The whole thing, into the air. Lined by birds. Crammed with birds, and as she was looking, when she looked, they took off. The shape of "a tree" lifting away, sifting into that particulate trail of smoke and beings birds make.
    For almost three years I stored half of my life in a warehouse in downtown Pittsburgh. 4th floor. Rectangle the standard size of a garage in San Francisco. My shit frozen in there, in situ. The place played top 40 24 hours a day. Guy in the space opposite ran a machine shop and covered all of our stuff in white dust but you couldn't begrudge his guts. Man had a job. He has making his way.
   Whenever I walked there to retrieve something I hadn't thought I'd need or reflect on why I had so much crap moldering away I passed half a block of those deathless pine bushes major cities throughout the Northeast cordon their parking lots with.
  And whenever I did I'd swear the bushes moved. They were filled with sparrows. Little chirping dirty sparrows hunting, trying to stay hidden and warm. Hopping as if with legs tied.
   And I would walk by and they'd go quiet and I would stop. And then I would try to get close to them and they would all fly away, leaping out of the bush like deer from a field and I would hope that Mary Oliver poem would come to life, and it almost did.
  I never gave much truck to birds. Lizards with feathers. Second rate pets. Toys for people who didn't want to handle an animal.
  My brother and my mother watch birds. They read the books and check the drawings against what they see. They bring binoculars on a stroll.
  It makes me sigh.
  But then I think……100 years ago nothing flew. Not a Goddamned thing. Nothing.
  But birds.
  And men and women would go on walks and these little mindless angels would move amongst them and lift up into the air, into the firmament as they called it, and dance and sing and dive and roll and we would stare in wonder and give them names and try to ape their songs.
   And I thought, what do I know of that? Can I tell a sparrow from a finch, a hawk from a harrier? Can I sing to them in ways that they might know and be calmed by? If they called to me would I come? Not.
   What weaker worlds we live in now. The trails we cannot follow, the colors we cannot tell, the names and play of the natural world we've never known which give life its grounding when all else is taken away.
  When my phone dies and there's no book in my bag and my credit card's declined what else do I have but the birds in their gathered flocks? The horses or cows huddled by our fences? The name of this bush or that, this shade, that color, genus, species, family, and type...the encyclopedia of existence sung back to us and not known.
  We've made ourselves illiterate. Before the face of all of creation, we're dumb. Speechless. We have no words for the world living just beyond the range of our servers. We cannot follow. We don't know what they do or what they bring us.
   Beyond that be monsters.
   No. We be the monsters.

Thursday, January 9, 2014


 One night not long ago, I was a passenger, being driven through farmlands that sit above the valley of the Kiski river. Hilltop fields. Barns and homes sparse among the now sparse trees and the stubbled land. You don't feel it at first but you're on a plateau, a high series of clearings which push up east out of Murraysville and drop steeply into the Kiski as it twists toward the Allegheny. 
  The road ran south, parallel to the north running river but far above it. Narrow streets led left down toward what must have been ferry stops or portage points below in the old tangled geography of cliffs and feeder streams. 
   The fields around us were covered in snow. Horses and cows in for the night. Houses shut up. Stores at the occasional crossroad closed tight. 
  While he drove, my friend and I were talking about the kids he teaches, the boys he has in his care. He runs a boarding school- and we were trying to remember one boy, a man now, who'd been my prefect…a word which sounds so arch and means so little to most people but meant so much to us if the prefect, the older brother, the mentor, had been kind.
  I went to a private school. Something which raises all sorts of hackles in most people. And in me. Privilege. Money. Condescension. Parental petting zoos for an elite class. Holding camps for the bosses you'll have to face. The guys who in the future will get the contracts, the acquittals, and the favors, warehoused until they're readied to be handed the reins. 
  I suppose it's often true. 
  But it was the making of me. A scholarship. A handful of teachers who deeply cared. A headmaster who gave me something more than love. I hesitate to try and define it. He could take the noise of fear - its tracklessness- and turn it into….the songline of your life. Where you felt fear walk toward it. Where the hard questions are were the only places you'd find a self worth sending out into the world.
  So here I was….out in that world….in the dark dark dark of Western Pennsylvania.
  Not enough's been said about our particular contribution to blackness, to pitch, and to gloom- the wet ink that surrounds you when you come around a country corner in Westmoreland county and the trees lean in over the road to suck down the glow out of the sky and your car's headlights might as well be water tossed into a hard black furnace. 
  And then you come over a rise and a handful of houses huddled by a bend have candles in their windows or a back porch lit up, a wagon or a horse in silhouette, and it seems like salvation. You wanna run out and hug these people for keeping you among the living.
  My friend and I came to such a place and it looked like a concert was being held in a hollow between two farms. Beacons shown. The snow was white as paint in the sun. It looked like a yard of milk. 
  A hockey game. At 10 pm on a Thursday in January  Somebody'd cleared their pond, grabbed a couple generators and every male within a mile was sliding back and forth from snow bank to snow banked goal.
  It probably took us ten seconds to pass by these men and go out of sight.
  And I thought, how little it takes to get your faith back. To recharge. To remember to breathe. To believe. To give a damn. 
  And I think that it takes so little because the country around here is so tough. It's twisted and hard. It's spare. It's rusty and weathered. The people have taken and know how to take hits. So many.   
  Appalachia. A love child of apples and hatchets, it giveth and oh boy oh boy can it ever taketh away.
  I heard a woman sing at a funeral once. Her song had the verse, "Save us from the gathering storm, because we are not worthy." Now that reads hard, but if you can, in the soundstage of your mind, imagine a voice coming out of her pelvis bones by way of the actual jacket of the heart with no other intent than to wring absolution out of your soul. Then you know what I heard.
   That sounds like something most people would want to avoid. To me it sounds like home. Which most people spend a good portion of their life trying to avoid and then end up running back to. Or from.
   I love how brutal my homeland is. Brutal economics. Brutal politics. Brutal landscape. Brute logic thrust on its people until they ape their jailers.
   I love how sweet my homeland is. Sweet eyes. Sweet beer. Sweet hills and valleys stuffed with trees. Walking out of the airport and into a summer night, breathing in the green, sodden air for the first time in months...it's practically pornographic. I want to drink it, lap it. I want it on me.
   I love her, love her Pittsburgh.