Have You Ever…?

Have you ever peered into the eyes of someone completely lost, hopeless, forgotten? To look into their eyes and see nothing, no dreams, only despair? Often when folks see a homeless person, they will joke that they are talking to themselves, have you never spoken to yourself? Maybe you didn’t feel like there was anybody else to talk with, no one to listen, no one to validate your existence.

Being homeless, even for one night can be scary, it can be devastating for a parent with children, there are families separated because there might only be a room at a shelter for the wife and children, not for dad. In general, society tends to look the other way when they come across homeless people, mind you I said homeless people and not “the homeless”; the later is a way of disassociating them from society. Someone whom is homeless already feels alone, in fact it might be the absolute loneliest a person can ever be, and then on top of that for others to literally look away or cross the street to not have to come close is demoralizing at best. Not only are they marginalized but then they are simply ignored or admonished by the public as trash might be.

What put the homeless people onto the streets, why are they there? What happened to lead them into the shadows, to live under bridges, in sewer and run-off tunnels, along the river in tarp covered hovels built from fallen trees and branches, during the winter? Did they succumb to a mental illness not having insurance or ran out of money due to an illness? Did they lose their job, their home and their family?  Have you ever felt so desperate that you found yourself sifting through someone else’s garbage? Have you ever been so distressed that you did things you might never have dreamed of doing? Things that made you feel dirty, immoral, disgusted with yourself or even less than human?

I am not attempting to make anyone feel bad or guilty, I just want people to remember there are folks out there barely surviving, they are sick, they cry at night because they are beginning to forget who they are, they fall asleep at night wondering if they will wake up, if they will be raped, if they will get to that point tomorrow where they will finally give in and do something they won’t be able to forgive themselves for, will they become the people they used to see wandering the dark places, ghosts of society, whose only thought each day is how to keep their selves or their children alive one more day.

This happens every single day, even in your community, believe it or not no city, neighborhood, community is immune. I know, I’ve seen those eyes before, I’ve stared into them, looking for some flicker of hope, some remnant of a bygone dream, I have looked past the dirt, the shame, the guilt, into the reddened, yellowed tired eyes through a broken mirror.

There is a reason lives are counted officially by souls, its because no matter your religion, race, culture, political stand, sexual identity, economic level or you live in the suburb or the city, in an apartment, a home, a car in a parking ramp, or under a bridge, we are all souls in the end, thriving or barely alive. We can never forget that.

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Falling Away

For years he walked against the wind, struggled against life’s gales, fighting for each step. He would turn his head from side to side straining to draw breath at times as he shielded his face from the stinging reach of his mistakes, and when the wind turned to a lesser breeze he’d look skyward for a light to show him the way, but all he found was reflections of shame.

He would sit down then, hunker in and wait for the storm to pass. Then when it did and he could stand and see around him all he saw was nothing, he couldn’t see into the future and he couldn’t see into his past, all there was, was nothing. He failed, failed to progress, failed to attain, he failed to be anything but present.

Like so many the present is unaccounted for, they wander between what came before and what happens next. Never knowing their fate, always looking for the solid, steady ground below their feet, which always seems to be there…until it isn’t.

When that moment comes and it always does, you have choices to make; you can surrender and fall away or reach out desperately and grab hold of the very edge and hang on. Then you fight, you fight with everything that’s left, you fight and claw and battle against gravity. You pull and struggle, and you as your fingers bleed and become cold and frozen and the feeling in your legs dissipates quickly you get angry and you spit as you cry out for a chance, just a little opportunity to show you have something left to give.

When you dig deep enough and you find that small flame buried somewhere in your soul you suck it in, and use it and crawl from that hole and roll over onto your back, exhausted, and weep. For you just learned that there is fight in you yet, that there is something worth saving and you love it and caress it and as you lay there contemplating the present, you realize that the clouds that kept your world dark and empty have begun to thin. You see blue sky and know there is something in your future if only you strive to put it there, there is something and you will find it.

At the Bottom of the Box

He brushed aside the un-ironed shirts and work pants hanging in his closet, pants to the right and shirts to the left. There on the beige carpeted floor against the blandly painted back wall sat a box, a very ordinary box, one that new reams of printer paper might come packaged in. He stood and looked at it for a while, the noises in his head of the birds chirping outside and the airplanes flying over head and the cars driving through the parking lot, splashing through every pothole on their way out turned to static.

He really wasn’t thinking, just had a feeling he needed to pull it out, he couldn’t actually assign a purpose to it, these days he doesn’t really know why he does things, he is living on two planes, one with his live in girlfriend and the other with the ghosts of his past. Both want his attention, they wait for him at the end of the day and whisper to him in his ears, it seems lately he can’t play his music loud enough. He goes to the gym and tries to lift away all the voices in his head, he grunts under his breath, pushes away the weight from his repeatedly but it just keeps coming back to him like flies on a rotting corpse, consuming his flesh bit by bit. When he can’t fight it any longer he showers and scrubs at his swollen skin.

Then it’s back to work and he forgets about everything for a while as he investigates program issues at his desk. He spends the next few hours like he did before the gym, searching for clues among clues among long strings of code that don’t seem to make any sense just hoping to trip over something that doesn’t quite seem as convoluted as everything else.

Back at his closet he looks over the box sitting at his feet, its edges are crushed and worn edges. There is a tear or two in the top and old tape along the sides. He lifts the box onto his bed and pauses as if he is standing at the entrance to a dark alley. Then he pulls the lid off, inside there are papers, it doesn’t look unlike every other banker’s box in peoples closets, ones that might hold last year’s taxes, old college essays, maybe an old book with torn corners that’s meant to be re-read again. But this box is different, there are things among those papers and books and essays that speak to him like murmuring from someone standing behind him in the shadows.

Among the dusty things there are hopes and imaginings, they are clean and fresh despite their age, they were placed there years ago when he was much younger, when he still dreamed of far off places he would go with someone much different than his girlfriend, there are lost dreams at the bottom that got buried by certificates and degrees and old manila envelopes with the words taxes and some other year crossed out and below it written vacation or minivan or fifth grade softball and some summer track program. And there’s a hand written list on a smallish note pad; it has categories and mileage and notes about campgrounds somewhere far away. In one corner there is an old receipt, written in pen and at the bottom signed by him and his ex-wife, at the top, the name of an old pop-up camper. Suddenly his eyes begin to water; the corners fill quickly and over flow, sending streams of liquid down over his cheeks. He can smell the linoleum and the weathered, mildew stained canvass. He closes his eyes and sees his oldest daughter staring up at him as she tries to lift tongue of the camper to help him hook it up to the trailer hitch. Her eyes clenched shut and her mouth pursed in a crooked smile. Then he turns to see his other daughter and his son jumping from one bed to the other inside the camper and his heart breaks because he knows that was long ago and when he opens his eyes everything is different, and the only thing staring back at him now is the ancient box of lost dreams he still keeps.

It’s a strange feeling, holding a bunch of dreams and memories that seem so empty, the purpose is gone, and they seem senseless and desperate now. There is no place for them here, the pages are faded and discolored with the sour taste of pain. A melancholy wave washes over him and he feels incredibly dejected. As he puts the lid back on the static in his head seems to slip away slowly and when he tries to lift the box from the bed it appears heavier than before. He struggles with it as he walks from his apartment down the dark halls filled with strange smells and descends the cold stairs to the back door. He stands at the dumpster a long while and as it begins to rain his eyes fill again, so he lets the box slip from his calloused hands and fall away. The murmuring in his ear fades and loneliness creeps in holding his hand like an old friend he doesn’t quite trust but desires to hold onto.

Big Boys Dont Cry

Sitting against the wall in his room he looks around and at the old wood paneling and the green shag carpet. The sun flows through the window at the top of the wall, the glass is the color of root beer and textured, the light shining through is dark and mellow. Its 1979 and he listens to 10CC crooning out the lyrics “I’m not alone…” and gets mad. He wipes away the tears that stream down his cheeks onto the sleeve of his second hand Sergio Valente shirt. His bedroom shares the basement with the wet bar his parents entertain in periodically, no one is home but crawls behind and hides below the bar anyway and drinks his mom’s Drambui. He is twelve.

His adoptive dad is travelling on the road, his mom is out with her boyfriend and boss, and his little sisters are at sleepovers. This is typical, if his mom is home she is drunk and passed out on the couch, so he would feed his sisters and then put them to bed. He can’t take his mom’s car this time so he takes his bike to Rockefeller’s arcade, scores some pot and rides to the river where climbs down the sandstone cliffs to the shoreline, there he smokes and watches the dark, cool waters slowly drift by.

He feels powerless, abandoned, desperate and lost. He smokes until it doesn’t hurt as much, until the pain runs like an undercurrent; it never quite goes away but is always there just under the surface. He doesn’t quite realize it at first and when he does he doesn’t care that his Nikes are almost completely submerged in the dirty Mississippi River. He lets himself fall back until his long hair is trapped beneath his back and the grey mud that makes up the beach between the reeds and the water. He lies there staring up at the stars, he feels like he’s floating somewhere between the earth and the space, somewhere no one can reach him, where the pain and the angst falls away for a little while, in obscurity.

The trouble with obscurity is that no one is there to see you, or to feel you or hear you and he realizes that’s where is already. With that he feels a sudden thud as he falls back to earth. Like opening a door in the midst of winter and catching the cold air in your face as it steals your breath, he is suddenly aware of everything that hurts, its late September and he can see his breath, its cold and when he rolls over to stand up he plants his hand in freshly fallen snow. He stands there looking out over the fastly running water shimmering under the moons light at the darkness all around him and he makes a promise to himself. His father always told him that big boys don’t cry. It’s time for him to be a big boy.

The tears stopped flowing. He swallowed hard and buried the pain, and all of a sudden he felt awkwardly comfortable in the darkness, it made sense to him, it seemed to welcome him, there was a safety within it he liked and he would own it. And it would serve him well.

Lost in Lava

We’d been driving up the coast north from Kona, Hawaii about 45 minutes, it was hot, and we were looking for things to check out along the road on the way towards Moana Loa when I spotted what appeared to be a remote lagoon located maybe a mile or two off the highway.

The color was a bright teal, clear and looked like the oasis’ you used to see in the old movies as the main character began to hallucinate. There was what looked like a thin strip of light sandy beach that was shaped like a giant fish hook extending from the shoreline out into the calm water. Bracketed by a stand of coconut trees and I could imagine my partner and me lying beneath them listening to their huge fronds swaying in the pacific breeze as we let the cool waters rush over our naked feet. I wanted to be there immediately, I wanted to dive into that cool water and let it wash over my hot, dry body.

I sat up quickly in the driver’s seat and whipped that rental van around suddenly; it tilted to one side and the tires squealed and I think my partner was startled awake from an afternoon daze. I pulled off of the black asphalt ribbon and slid to an abrupt halt while a cloud of red dirt swirled around us. When it settled I told my partner we were going to go on a short hike to this wonderful looking lagoon I spotted from the road. Supportive and intrigued she exclaimed “let’s do it”.

We jumped out of the van into the hot afternoon sun, it was high overhead, the air was still, and there was no breeze. I locked the doors and off we went, we ascended a small burm and there in front of us, between the road and the sea was a field of long dried, red lava which seemed to reach for acres. It was jagged and clumped in huge boulders. We climbed it and stumbled over a number of these before deciding that it appeared almost impossible to traverse with any simplicity. We looked over the landscape and saw a gully open up a few yards ahead of us, we climbed down into it.

In the gully the ground softened, it was sandy and thick with Kiawe trees. These are shorter, barren trees that are covered in huge woody thorns that appear to be 3-6 inches in length, and their limbs and trunks are bizarrely twisted as though they are reaching out desperately seeking moisture from the air in the arid terrain. We navigated between them like we were performing some sort of native dance. As we did so there was a feeling that crept up the back of neck seemingly to warn me we were being watched from somewhere deep in the thicket. As we grew more frustrated at the difficult maneuvering it took to travel a short distance within the gully we spotted a Tribe of goats, standing within the Kiawe trees watching us, and it was unnerving.

We decided to climb out from the trees and onto what was now the only alternative. The lava field had turned to jet black; it was no longer filled with huge jagged red boulders. It appeared like miles of taffy, rolled out and twisted into ribbons, sometimes looking like massive hills of bread dough as it sits on grandma’s counter settling, its edges rolling over the surface of the counter and then frozen in that form. Only it was all just black. It was certainly easier to walk on, though periodically the round domes would collapse under foot and shatter like fine china. There were great tubes that had formed when the lava cooled and dried, leaving the center hollow. There were caves and sometimes the roof of which had crumbled and fallen in. It was fascinating, and eerie.

As we walked, ascending and descending, travelling through sections of tubes sometimes 10 feet high and skirting other collapsed tubes, leaving open ground that seemed to fall away into deep dark caverns, we considered what might happen if we were to trip and land on the lava rock. Our bare knees striking the sharp, glassy surface would surely split and tear open eviscerating muscle and tissue. We were careful and strategic as we continued our hike. We were too far along now to turn back. Finally we began to see green foliage growing between the smaller cracks and sand began to fill crevices and lower, shallower portions of the ground. After what we had estimated to be an hour or so we reached the shoreline. Indeed it was cooler, the water was magnificent but from where we stood it wasn’t the idealic lagoon I thought I’d spotted earlier. However it was a nice respite, refreshing and breezy.

I felt like the main character after crawling through the hot desert sand to the oasis I spotted only to find that it was a much smaller patch of green than I’d anticipated, a single tree protruding from the ground and at its base a spot of moist sand that accentuated my misinterpreted desire for something grand.

We shrugged and decided not all struggles, not all explorations and adventures’ culminate in discovery of something awe inspiring, and turned to find our way back. After a short amount of time trying to decide which way to go, with the sea at our back and the infertile fields before us, we stumbled upon a makeshift pathway. It was marked by other travelers with white chalky symbols etched out on rocks to the right and to the left most likely with pieces of coral, suggesting a safe trail by staying between them as we hiked. We would follow these symbols, but it was difficult, you couldn’t allow your eyes to wander from under foot for fear of tripping.

Bones bleached from the sun, lay in stark contrast to the rock littering parts of the path, out in front of us you could see transparent waves of heat rising from the rock, and through the souls of your shoes. We rarely spoke, keeping our eyes focused in the direction of our rental van, we couldn’t see it but knew generally where it must be and praying that inside it was the water we’d incidentally left behind. It took us nearly an hour and a half to reach the road, the bottoms of our shoes shredded from the severe, razor-sharp rock. Our throats dusty, we were absolutely parched and the skin on our arms was blistered, covered in hundreds of what appeared like tiny droplets of sweat but these weren’t sweat, we’d run out long before, these were diminutive though no less obtrusive, clear blisters.

In spite of the challenging journey, our clothes soaked through with sweat, our ankles and feet tired, we reveled in the idea of being lost in a lava field and surviving it. We would move on to more adventures, great elevations, searching for green sand beaches and rolling through small villages blanketed in thick, wet fog in the mountains of the South end of the Big Island; Hawaii. Some fruitful and some challenging but all adding so many memories, feelings of accomplishments’ and fueling the imagination even more, wondering what other strange and wonderful places we might discover along the way.

Have You Seen a Ghost?

Have you ever seen a ghost? I don’t mean the type of apparition that floats through the air in the stairwell and gives you the shivers. Or the muse for many old country songs that is seen in the headlights of your car, standing on an otherwise deserted, wet, forest lined road under the light of a full moon. I mean the kind that you see when you look at a photograph, you can feel the old print between your fingers, it’s faded, it’s been folded and maybe it’s got a torn corner. In the photograph there might be some family members or a group of old friends from days long gone by, and in that scene, is an image of you.

As you look at that image of you, you may recognize the clothing you wore, the dull, washed out jeans and you might even remember how they felt, maybe they were too short. You can remember the mood in that shot in time, how the sun felt on your face that day and what was happening then, where you were and whom you were with. Maybe they are your friends, or your cousins and you remember that earlier that day the one with his or her arm around you made you mad, but the two of you made up before the picture was snapped. You remember how warm their smile made you feel every time.

When you look at that person, your cousin or your friend, you can remember laughing together, you can recall a conversation you two shared that day, perhaps they’d sought solace with you and you comforted them. Then you find yourself reflecting on your relationship with them and missing their place in your life, their warmth and their touch.

When we share or hear ghost stories we think of spooky tales, fright and ominous specters always witnessed by someone else, cautionary anecdotes to save us from an almost certain demise, but today, holding this old photograph in my tired, calloused hands, looking at the image of me, looking at my contorted face, eyes squinting in the sun, I recall nothing about how the boy felt then. I try and see deeper into those dark eyes, I scan the scene in this picture, and I look to the faces of those around me for a reflection of my mood. But I feel nothing, I run my thumb across the old Polaroid as if to evoke or dredge up some sort of feeling from the face of me, trying to call up the spirit, trying desperately to remember. Alas there is nothing, nothing but a ghost, an image but with no soul, no revived memories, no story.

I know that there is a history there, I know it happened, I know the location, the clothes, the hair, I know where I got that scar on my arm I can see in the picture, but I cannot remember the feeling I had that day, the emotion I felt then or what my concentration, my preoccupation was at that time. I was a young boy then, I remember my dog and I remember sisters. I remember my mom passed out on the sofa and I remember the pocket knife my dad left me on the counter when he left before I woke for school. I remember that was the last day my dad ever stepped foot in that old house. I remember his bottle of Old Spice I kept in my dresser for years, he’d left it behind and I grabbed it from the trash when my mom threw all his stuff away. I have memories of trying to be tough for my little sisters when I tucked them into bed, and I remember sitting on the couch watching Johnny Carson with my mom until she fell asleep, then drinking the rest of the scotch in her glass. I even remember being sent to counseling in grade school and being molested by the guy in the corduroy jacket.

What I don’t remember is how I felt the day this picture was taken. How is right that I can’t escape the image of my neighbor, my baby sitter lying face down on her dirty, faded, braided oval rug, her skin blue, her thin house dress crumpled up barring the back of her aged white thighs, as I ate a Nut Goodie candy bar, waiting for my mom to pick me up after her second shift at the factory. But I can’t remember if I had thoughts of a crush that day, whether or not I was scared or elated, if I had dreams or aspirations that day.

Sometimes ghosts aren’t the remnants of those that have passed on and now haunt the living, but those suffering deep inside and can’t break out of the body they are in, it’s the thinly veiled spirit of someone trying desperately to hang on and exist without acknowledging the feelings and emotions they are afraid will kill them if they let them. They are the ones haunted, so they move silently through each day, trying not to disturb the things around them that will alert those that will hurt them, they float through life, learning what gets them by, what people expect of them, all the while losing touch with who they are, their dreams, with the things that validate their soul. Eventually they hone their skills so that others may never know what pain they feel, so that no one may suspect they are knee deep in a roaring, torrid fire behind the walls they’ve built.

Do you recall Dr Seuss’ book entitled Oh The Places You’ll Go? “You’ll come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted but mostly they’re darked. Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?” That was my favorite page, I wasn’t afraid of those places, in fact when I was a kid and I read that page I felt validated, I felt like someone knew where I was. You can hide in those dark places, you can make believe you’ll go some place one day for other’s sake, but you can’t hide the darked out windows, you can’t hide the void in your eyes. As I stand here holding this tarnished photograph in my hands, I can see the reason why I can’t remember, it’s because spirits don’t have reminiscences. I look into the eyes of that young boy and they are cold, they are darked out. That young boy is a ghost, an apparition of someone lost long before the shutter snapped. I have seen a ghost and he has my face.