Friday, April 27, 2012

Adventure #6, "Try a Sonnet," she said: Ending with Bad Rhyme

The Last Stall on the Left

She scrapes her nail along her stretch marks
conscious his lips read between each line
those remnants of seed; warm water descending
vines that wind through rooms—a boy’s pail, a girl’s twine
a father’s bent boot, a mother’s worn coat
dirt and cold; sipped whiskey and warm coffee
words and teeth twisted with worry and toffee.
A hoarse whisper, lips (again) brushing her throat
like many before, words stick, withered to gasps
beside leaves turning brown then yellow
and those red letters, printed slowly, explain
bad decisions born of the bar, recalled in rasps
heard in bathroom stalls, reflected in Jell-O
shots, where fathers and then sons learn of pain.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Adventure #5, Cashing a Check: Young Girls Ponder the Metaphysics of Powdered Cream and Sugar

I went to the bank to deposit a $25 check. Apparently, I'd been throwing money at my insurance company, hoping, I now realize, that the stained fold of the figurative bills would unbend beneath the assessor's flaccid palm and initiate a new age of compassion. However, crouching to the crinkled and imagined seam, reading "in God we Trust," she smiled, a clandestine chunk of parsley wedged between her bicuspids, and decided to fling back a pittance. As the Supreme Court noted compassion and of course God have no place in the business of health care.
Check folded in the breast pocket of my Oxford, I scuffed into the bank; its high ceiling and windowy openness reminding me of a high school gym or modern debit-card cathedral extracted, as both are, from eager-lipped neo-liberals or blue-veined dementians. As I waited in the line that wound this and that way around a red couch and oddly placed work station, I noticed two small girls standing at the complimentary coffee bar. They appeared to be around five or six and were leaning close, whispering in those elvish tones little girls master and quickly lose, replaced by the insipid weasely-whine, "whatever" or "I don't care" or "I'm bored" or texting thumbs plunging in mute disregard.
The hiss of their whispering seemed to register the seriousness of their work as they sought to unravel the mysteries of the powdered cream and assorted sweeteners, mysteries that melted into the hot liquids their parents drank while bent to their own breathy and subdued exhalations. Beneath each cup, held earnestly and balanced by a thumb, ran the strained undercurrents of concern, etched by cracked nails into the table top, meandering toward the margins of sense. That place where inveterate pen marks linger, etchings of mind and moments lost.
The girls seemed to pondered the alchemy, placing pinches of dust from the pink packet with a sqwinch of the grains from the glass jar and mixing both into the faintly yellow powder from the plastic cylinder. They traced patterns through the resulting concoction, one adding to the other's trailing thought, not communicating but engaged in symbolic play, building an image that would inhabit their separate stories. An image that emerged in relation, in emotive reaction, to the other's imagination--a bend inspired a line that ended in an elaboration of both. These girls were not collaborating in the creation of a communal tale, but responding to the remnants of whatever tale was left in the dusty confection.
Perhaps among the sweetened tailings were stories about mothers meeting fathers beside sinks to clink among the mysteries of plates and glasses, dipping tired hands that have held too much into scalding water, for a moment, to have some feeling affirmed. Deeper, where wood grain resists the powder, is the valley of absence, a dark country where children walk bent to labor, distance, and loneliness; where feet and moss meet again and again among ant and slug. A scary place from which their parents rescue them again and again from the amorphous, the abstract--"Mom and Dad, I don't want to die." The girls are absorbed as each shapes and reshapes her vision, neither yet suffering the anxiety of meaning.
Unfolding the check, and confirming my identity by committing cheap ink into the interstices between cheaper fibers, I realized that it is the story, even in pre-operational children, that establishes the ground for compassion or the edifice for hate. What stories might the creamer and sweetener packets tell the children to refract and realign their neurons with the spark of compassion? The inane Veggie Tales probably function in this way, investing common foods with Christian virtues that children can then assimilate. Yet when Bob the Tomato or Larry the Cucumber are daily eviscerated by parents, I wonder if children experience some sense of the carnage, the history of hate and murder, central to these same Christian beliefs? At one moment, Pa Grape is explaining to Junior Asparagus why the baby carrot should be kind to the cherry tomato (i.e. because Jesus said so) while in the next the child's parent is drawing and quartering the tomato and decapitating the carrot, putting the remnants of each between pieces of wheat bread. The pre-operational mind probably fails to make this connection, believing each instance separate, belonging to its own universe and abiding by its own set of peculiar but equally valid laws. The carrot is alive only within the borders of the virtual environment. The green thing that tastes bad and gets stuck in the child's teeth exists somewhere else.
Compassion might have begun to emerge among the girls as I waited for the bank teller to invite me to the counter. As the girls began to link the mental idea with the images they were tracing into their confection, they were exploring the links between ideas, testing how continuity relates to causality and how these inform commonality. Where one dusty fingertip met another, the girls might have experienced the transactional nature of sharing, in which one's perspective does not merely overlap but is infused with another's. This complex titration defines compassion, which is an irreversible transformation of sense, a salient structure of feeling. For this reason, those without compassion, as long as they are not mentally disabled, chose to ignore out of spite their better natures.
When I think of the concern my niece has for the feelings of those around her, or my friend's boy who cries at the suffering Portrayed in UNICEF commercials, I worry. I think of the ambition and associated meanness that interferes with this innate sense of compassion, this fellow feeling that can be and so often has been redemptive. I think of the belligerent attacks I face at work, the sadism, as Roland Barthes might interpret it, of those who find pleasure (often of a sexual sort) in ridiculing others, using for example the feigned complement of one to insult another over and over and over, believing, I assume, that such inanity is the pinnacle of wit. I think of my own mistakes and those moments when I treated others with disregard and could not be bothered with their problems.
As I watched these girls draw their fingers through the cream and sugar, I realized that it is storytelling and literature that have the potential to sustain compassion because they continual externalize our perceptions. When we read we move beyond ourselves to the detailed machinations of others, assessing the characters' experiences in relation to our own (it is worth noting that those who express a disdain for imaginative literature and the thoughtful interpretation of it, those who read nothing or claim that only non-fiction is valuable, are those who exhibit the most insensitivity toward others). This evaluative process, when supplemented with experience, leads perhaps to wisdom, the wisdom to know and speak thoughtfully and soberly of that knowing in ways that unite rather than divide, that embrace rather than resist debate, that encompass rather than exclude those different from themselves. What might a Veggie Tale look like that used this as its model rather than the dogmatic nonsense of religion, ending as these tales do with those acontextual biblical verses that, once examined closely, undermine anything endearing in the story that preceded it? What might an education look like that elevates literature and art, teaching children not only to read stories but also to interpret them and tell their own? What might a society look like that values its teachers as much as professional athletes or corporate CEOs? It would probably look, feel, and function differently and that difference might feel something like hope.