Month: April 2014

Man Stares At Painting

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He’d been leaving a lot lately, Fridays (his half-day) at mid-afternoon, still in his slacks from work, his shirt’s crispness gone limp but with the sleeves rolled up to display wiry, strong forearms. He’d sigh at his desk, pushing his hair back from his forehead, stand up, take his wallet from the counter, stick it in his back pocket, slide back into his leather shoes, and just go out the apartment door. He wouldn’t wish me goodbye. He’d turn and give me a slow, purposeful nod, half a smile shining through dark eyes above the graying bags that had been hanging below them lately.

He’d come back roughly three hours later, often with a bag of takeout food in hand. Hot falafel or white folded Chinese-food cartons. He’d set the warm brown paper package on the coffee table as he’d sit down beside me, undo the top button of his shirt, and pass me the first pair of chopsticks, often telling me about whoever he’d sat across from on the T.

Where I saw a canvas backdrop, he saw an intricate lace of stories and lives. He’d smile shyly at the small children whose legs dangled from the grubby train seats beside us, and stand to attention when an elderly person would enter the car, grabbing the top rail and beckoning the individual to the now-vacant seat. He could look around a crowded Dunks and instantly pick out the “characters,” the guy talking to his bagel or whatever, but never made fun of them, instead seeming to point them out in wonderment. I think he was one of the few people with the ability to sit in the car in a crowded intersection and fully comprehend that the bodies in the cars that surrounded him were not background actors but individuals with a backstory just as rich and toned as his own, and who were going from somewhere to somewhere with purpose. I had never heard him honk.

Tonight, he was taking extra long to come home. I decided to ask him. That is, where he seemed to go on Friday afternoons. I paced to the fridge and opened the door, letting the cold waft of air and white light wash over me. Maybe it’s not always the same place, I thought, extracting an apple from the crisper. This didn’t make sense to me, though, since the entire experience seemed so uniform: leave at 3:15-30, work attire, return just in time for dinner. I spread a dollop of peanut butter on the apple’s smooth, red-green dappled skin.

As time drew nearer to three hours, I wondered if he didn’t want me to know, if the location was deliberately hidden. Tension crawled in my stomach and chattered in my teeth—I didn’t want to fight. I couldn’t. My adrenaline accelerated when the doorknob turned, and my heart thumped uncomfortably. He entered smiling, two giant subs wrapped in festive yellow paper in tow. “Vegetable or beef?” I reached for vegetable.

“Where,” I started and faltered, voice crackling, “Do you… go?” I stared down at my knees. My mouth was as dry and papery as the restaurant napkin in my hand.

I turned to see his face, unsure what to expect, but finding mellow congeniality. “Do you want me to take you tomorrow?” he asked. I nodded heartily, too relieved to seem overeager.

Rather than alleviating my wonderings, the prospect of the big revelation in less than twenty-four hours just accelerated the thoughts’ bouncing around in my mind, colliding with visions of stacks of paperwork, fragments of grocery lists, single lines of songs, tangled conversations, and titles of articles and books I’d told myself I’d “look at later,” reverberating off the sides of my skull and ringing. My feet sticking to the cold floor, I traipsed to the bathroom in the night to take some Benadryl for sleep. Saturday morning, I awoke eagerly, bounced through my run from Kendall down Commonwealth, and downed two slices of dry toast in four or five chomps.

I sat by his side on the T wondering again if I was going to meet another person, one he knew in a spectrum different than my own. He, like everyone else we met in college, exists in numerous circles outside the school, from family and old acquaintances to previous dates and jobs. Perhaps it was someone he met at work. We transferred at Park Street, and I kept pace at his side rather than asking him which train we were changing to.

Northeastern slid by outside the window of the car, and when the train slowed to a stop at the MFA, he stood and beckoned for me to follow. I glanced around on the sidewalk, from the manicured grass park to the tall-fenced soccer field, but he led me into the museum proper. Without looking back, he led me up to the center floor, to Europe, and the impressionist landscapes. He halted in front of a Monet seaside.

I must have looked expectant, because he seemed almost embarrassed. “When I’m about to have a panic attack, I come look at this painting. These too, sort of,” he said, indicating the neighboring pieces. “Sometimes everything’s just so overly full of stuffand feels so complicated, like it’s kind of smothering me, that I need to come stand in a white room with a tall ceiling and look out ten windows at fields and seas and just breathe.” His hands had sunk into his pockets. Mine followed suit. He seemed to think it was his turn to look uncomfortable, to look away.

“I think that’s great,” I said. “I think that’s really cool, like, if I didn’t take a break and go for a run every morning I’d lose my mind, and that you work way too hard for such a young guy. And I love the way these are painted in neat little dabs, like the most vivid sunny day I’ve ever seen.”

I wasn’t staring at a painting, though. I was staring at a man staring at a painting, and it was the greatest work of art I’d seen in a long time, possibly ever.

The painting spoke to me. “Do you want to get falafel after this?”

I responded, “For sure.”

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(Note: there is an actual Man who Stares at Painting, but I have never met him. One of my favorite professors said a friend of hers goes to the Met every time he verges on a panic attack to look at the same painting, and that idea just really got me)

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Alone

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There are some songs that remind me of making grilled-cheeses and feeling sinkingly alone. Anything off the latest Daft Punk album, Amy Winehouse’s “He Can Only Hold Her,” stuff by The Strokes. These are beats and melodies that call to mind the smooth, hard linoleum floor of the tiny kitchen in the taupe little prison-apartment I lived in last summer, and the hours I spent staring at books, the computer, the ceiling, the rug, the overly bright illuminated mirror, and, by extension, the desolately empty streets of Dinkytown in the summer, the aisles of strangers in the grocery section of the Target store where I got my bike spokes stolen, and the duct-taped seat in the corner booth of the Hard Times Café, where I’d occasionally treat myself to a two-dollar chai to enjoy as I sat alone in the window with a Wallace book. It’s less picturesque when you’re feeling your phone like a lead weight in your pocket, waiting for some indication from the rest of the world that they remember that you’re there and that you matter to them, for some unclear and inherently needy-feeling reason.

But I’m not there anymore. I’m back at school, where, when I need someone to talk to, there’s a warm hug around every corner. But the school year is almost over and I have no idea what I’m doing this summer. There’s this bizarre, stupid pressure here to get a big internship each summer that will sparkle on your resumé and give you a great thing to talk about in the fall and a nice profile picture, but all my plans keep falling through as I get denied increasing (alarming) numbers of jobs. These past few days, though, it’s been me who’s been letting plans fall through, choosing to sit alone in my dorm rather than going out with friends like I usually would.

It’s less that I need an outlet for my suffocating Teen Angst than that I need the companionship of my friend group on a regular basis. The hardest part of living alone for me last summer wasn’t saving money, or shopping and cooking for myself, or even minor disasters like getting in a car accident. It was the fact that I would come home every night and be alone, wake up every morning to an empty, boxy apartment, and watch a sad trickle of people wander in and out of the weights gym as I did my thrice-weekly coach-mandated lift workout as my only (near) human contact, besides the motherly smiles from my middle-aged coworkers. Though I kept myself fed, exercised, worked, and cared for, which I thought would be the hardest parts of living alone, it was the actual alone part that did me in. I’d wake up at 4:30 AM unable to fall back to sleep, feeling sick to my stomach, and berate myself for being “too emotional” or “needy,” unclear of the rationale behind my own behavior.

Perpetuating this fear is the fact that I will probably end up moving somewhere after college and having to live alone again, only for multiple years rather than a month or two. I have this strange overwhelming needfor other human beings that itches and aches and makes virtually zero sense to me, and all I’m left with is the ever-appealing result of lying in the middle of the rug, Cheerios strewn everywhere, texting every one of my friends “Hey how’s it goin” and hoping that someone will reply.

A quote that may be an old wives’ tale describes young John Lennon as getting in trouble for saying that what he wanted to be when he grew up was “happy.” I am pretty sure I want to grow up to love and be loved. I don’t think there’s an internship for that.  As I’ve been watching my other internship plans fall through, though, I’ve been realizing that it would be okay for me to go home, spend time with friends and family, run my dog in the woods, and write. I can work at an ice-cream shop or running store and stop telling myself from within a swollen head that I need to be “the best” at everything, or anything, to have a future I can be happy with.

On second thought, I’ve changed my mind about the existence of an internship for love. It’s unpaid and starts when you first make eye contact with your mother on the day you are born. Some nights you work overtime, as a warm hug and listening ear for a friend who is struggling with a breakup, or making sure that someone makes it home safely between cars on the dark and crowded street. Some days, the work is light, a friendly chat at lunch or a smile on the sidewalk. Your promotions come from making new friends or volunteering or making a relationship work or having a child. Perhaps my desires to have a better GPA or fuller CV are taking away from my work on the love-internship. I seldom daydream about the car I’ll drive home from work in someday, or the house I’ll pull into the driveway of, but I do often wonder what faces and voices I’ll be coming home to. But an internship is a project, and I’m doing far better today than I was even a year ago. Perhaps my recent cravings for solitude are a sign of the fact that I’m gradually understanding the fact that love doesn’t necessarily have to mean a body in the seat next to mine. In the meantime, though, I should chip away at my schoolwork so I have time to see my friends.

Not an Artist

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“I’m not an artist. If I was an artist, I would need to paint,” my mom explained almost gravely, flipping my heart-shaped pancake on the stovetop. Sitting on the edge of the kitchen bench, tiny legs swinging, I’d asked my mom if she was an artist. Looking for my stuffed beagle in the attic, I’d found a painting she had made, depicting my brother and I on the beach behind our house, filling a canvas bucket hat with rocks. Thick dabs of paint created a lake dappled with gleaming waves of sunshine, and my brother’s and my cherub cheeks were rosy and full.

When I was five, I didn’t think about what it meant to be an artist, or what it meant to have a job that socially defines an individual. If people ask a five-year-old who her dad is, she won’t think to say “an accountant” or “a store manager.” She will think of the strong, warm pair of arms that lift her from the floor to a terrifying-but-secure resting place on broad shoulders. A mother is not a part- or full-time position but a manner of living for someone else entirely, as a comfort and a source of strength.

Despite my mother’s attempt at hiding the painting, friends of mine over the years would encounter the easel upon crawling into the attic, usually breathing in awe, “Whoa, where did you get that?” I’d explain that it was my mom’s, and she sort of… stopped being an artist awhile ago, I guess. Though a tiny voice in me said that she hadn’t, that her art wasn’t now limited to the animals drawn up the side of the grocery list but also included the way she listened freely and helped her friends and family openly, with creativity and plasticity of mind.

 

“I don’t want to be a writer,” I say when they ask, shutting the lid of my laptop and pulling a textbook back out of my backpack. What are you going to write? Are you going to write a novel? What’s it ABOUT? Are you okay? Is this story about YOUR LIFE? Are you depressed? Do you have a crush on that boy, like in that story? How are you going to make that into a JOB?

“I want to work in communications. Journalism. Nonprofits. Public radio. I’ll still be able to write, but I’ll get to work with people. Plus I’ll have a job, and an office, and an income.” The stiff old men at the Scholarship Foundation nod at answers like this. A man with gold cuff-links once chipped in that it’s not too late to be pre-medical. Some of my friends nod at my answer, some don’t seem to believe me, but none really ask. My parents just agree supportively to what I say—no child of a Fine Arts major gets scoffed at for her English degree.

But what I say to myself as I lie in bed and stare up at the vacantly flecked ceiling, and when I’m a tiny pale dot running through the big city, is different. I say that I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life, or even where I’m going to start. I don’t even know if I can formulate thoughts “complex” and “important” enough, whatever those mean, to turn into a book. What I do know, though, is that I have to fall asleep soon, because I’m going to wake up and write. I need to.

Mass Ave Bridge

A Panorama View photo could never capture

Not just one hundred and eighty degrees, but every dimension around me,

Every strip of shade from a tree or a sign pole

Every glint of light on the water

That tosses playfully, sparkling and refracting between the sailboats

.

No description can detail the feeling of the cool wind on my pale, prickly skin

The smell of water on the air

The background swishing of cars and the clanks of the T

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No quick meter, short stanza, short poem

Can ever capture the infinite lightness, boundless freedom

Of the first “real run” of the spring

When your feet don’t hold your weight like a burden but bounce it back up,

And when even bare, gothically curling tree branches look fresh and new

And how wide swaths of mud are instantly forgotten at the sight of

That Single First Patch of New Green Grass

That first glimpse of New Life

That first New Breath

Just Look Natural

“Just look natural,” I say, picking up my camera phone from the diner table, wanting to capture the radiant warmth that glows off her soft face.

Her face falls, her skin pales. She presses up the corners of her mouth like each is capped with a lead weight, a Herculean effort, and she tucks her chin down as if she’s ashamed.

I study words late into the night, poring over stacks of maroon- and evergreen-bound library books under my yellowing desk light, but I am yet to find a way to tell someone that “Just Look Natural,” spilling uncontrollably from my lips in admiration, isn’t something I feel I have to say conforming to society’s slapped-on apology for telling us that we aren’t beautiful as we are, but something that overflows from me, overcomes me, when I see her push her glossy hair back and laugh at a typo or a silly name on a sign on the subway.

She asks me not to post the photos, and I agree. They plaster my mind, though, filling the dark corners with the light and warmth of her dark brown eyes, and her laugh, a mere note different from my own.

Trying Alcohol

What she never realized

Lying in her sheltered bed, sterile house in high school

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Was the fact that Trying Alcohol wasn’t going to be the memory,

(And there wasn’t much in the cups any of those nights, she tells herself),

It was the way you saw her standing, functioning, fine, and asked if she was okay

.

The way you wrapped her in a warm hug as a comfort, as a friend

The way you showed her the best pictures from your book about the solar system

(Sitting on the ledge in your dorm like it had expected this)

And led her to the nubby carpet for a dance

Singing along, that there’s no place you’d rather be, to her as she stared at the floor.

.

What she never realized

Lying in her sheltered bed, sterile dorm in college

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Was that two hours later she would wake up

With the name of a dear friend on her mind, heart, voice

A Letter To Myself, Hundreds of Mornings

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You woke up tired and aching a bit. Eat a good breakfast and write a page or two of anything you’d like. Empty document. Staring down into the brown of your mug, you can feel the pouchy bags under your eyes. Remember, you were a person before you were a student.

For half an hour, go for a run by the river, or become a tiny figure hidden in the crowds of the city streets. Realize you don’t have to sacrifice your body for your mind, and that your mind doesn’t thrive only on black-on-white pages or haunted glowing screens. Draw in deeply through your nose and let clean, brisk outdoor air flow in.

When you talk to people, be honest about the negatives and effusive with the positives. Be genuine with the questions and frequent with the nods. Hold the door for people because their hands are full, not so you can be the “type of person” who does.

Wear a watch instead of checking your phone. Stare at the warm face across the lunch table instead of down at a thin little mechanical box whose insides you can’t understand.

It’s okay to check your email maybe two or three times a day. Simon told us over soft guitar that he could gather all the news he needs from the weather report. Don’t let Productive guilt you or hold you down, and set Productive aside when you need to. Take twenty minutes to lay down your thoughts on a blank sheet instead of spending eight on a newsfeed.

Look at what’s on top of your desk and in your bookshelf and remember you’re here because the contents of each work satisfy an intrinsic longing for something beyond the damp small-town newspaper you’d be picking up off your beloved childhood porch at home right now. Thank your home for instilling your passion and curiosity, no matter what it looked like.

Yes, you’ll have to sit back down at your computer, and open that document, and prop those textbooks back up precariously on the piles on your desk. You’ll have to start, which is painful, or start fixing things you’ve done poorly, which is often worse. Don’t think about the percentage that will stamp the paper later, though. The aftermath. Think about the present, and the ideas that are composing the paper. Spin and weave your present ideas as strong, golden fibers.

Look through the paper into my eyes. Yours. Hazel looking into hazel. Cracks and light spots and morphs and nuances, brown to green. Look alive. Look bright. You’ve done this before, and you’re going to be fine.