The Long Walk Home (Flash Fiction)

Prompt: “Heart of my Own” by Basia Bulat

***

Its a long walk back to town. The moon is up. The trees are whispering tall and shuddering with secrets. Andie walks a strong, steady pace not quite a stride, not quite a jog. She doesn’t let herself panic, though the edge of it ices her heart.

She would curse him but she is trying to save her breath, to make it match her steps. It is a kind of meditation, lost in fury. The miles unreel behind her. This night has already been the longest night of her life and it will only be longer still as she walks the long, narrow country road, trying not to worry too much about the hundred or so horror movies she has seen featuring a woman just like her walking a trail just like this only to find herself sunk deep in perdition.

And bears. There could be bears. Andie keeps her eyes straight ahead, not letting herself notice how sinister and vague the world appears around her, rocks and fallen limbs wrapped in shadow and the frequent flash of eye shine staring back at her from the road just ahead.

She would be walking all night and, unless some car came and rescued her, any one step could be a fatal last step into the slavering jaws of a waiting wolf.

These thoughts fueled her stride. These thoughts and the impetus of fury that had pushed her out of Freddie’s car. Freddie with his sour breath and his too big hands that knew no boundaries.

It was no kind of date to drive deep into these woods, isolated and alone. He said he wanted to show her field where they could watch the meteors fall far from the neighborhood lights. She had wanted to believe him, but as soon as they pierced past the last of the streetlights, his hands had grown restless and friendly and deaf to her refusal. Kind at first and then insistent and then forceful.

What is it about men that keep their hands and lower parts separate from their minds?

The night air was cool and damp with the falling dew.

The moon is bright, silvering everything, but not quite full. No worries of werewolves this night. Make yourself grateful for few traveling mercies.

And the predatory hoot of owls in the distant trees. They are watching her. The entire forest is watching her. The woods have eyes and they are following her with voracious interest. If she stumbles, if she falls, they will press in around her and liberate the meat from her bones.

Andie keeps walking. She looks not to the right. She looks not to the left. She is only straight ahead and bent on reaching her destination and doing so in one piece. She wants to arrive without being eaten. The forest has a hundred hungry stomachs, each clutching and slavering at the scent of her passing. The forest is deep. The forest is dark. The forest has voracious appetites. Andie promises herself she will thwart those appetites and reach her destination having denied the night creatures their moon-salted meal.


I’m in therapy. You probably should be too.

Last week, a friend thanked me for sharing the fact that I see a therapist. He was very kind and very genuine. It was, he told me, a brave thing to share. He thanked me, he said, because he sees a therapist too and was glad not to need to be embarrassed or ashamed.

The funny part is that I never actually intended to share that. It was just a little fact that wandered into a post about self-help books.

Funnier still, I am the kind of person most people would not assume needs therapy. I am, in general, a happy, patient, even-keeled kind of person. The friend who thanked me is also a happy, patient, even-keeled kind of person. We aren’t the poster children for psychotherapy. Except that we are.

A few years ago, my life went haywire. My typical habits of coping and perspective-getting began to fail. I accidentally adopted new habits of thought that made my life more difficult, my thinking cloudy and my perspective short. I became anxious and needed help finding new, better habits of thought. I needed someone to let me work my way through knots of emotion that kept me caught in anxiety and dread.

It was the best decision I could have made for myself. I don’t lie on a couch. I don’t touch my inner child or talk very much about my mother. I just talk about the things that have me feeling stuck and listen when I need someone to point out when I’m being dramatic or silly or lazy. I am reminded to take responsibility for my own feelings and not to take so much responsibility for the feelings of others. I am reminded that life is growth and situations change and that worry and anxiety usually happen when I try to live too much in the past or too far in the future. I get reminded to be where I am and feel what I feel and do positive things to control the few things I can actually influence and let go of the rest.

I don’t know what my friend’s experience of therapy might be. I suspect he would say some of the same.

I want to thank my friend for being kind and generous and for taking the time to say thank you. He has me thinking about the merits of having a professional partner to help you keep your thoughts in order. Things are much better for me, but I’m not done yet. I still need the therapy. You probably do too.


Self-help: No shortcuts. No secret passwords.

Before I close the college library for the two-week Christmas holiday, I always grab a dozen or so books to be certain I have good things to read over the break. I’d like to tell you that my stack of holiday reads is a carefully thought out list. It isn’t. The stack is more of a smash-and-grab operation.

A week into my vacation I was surprised to notice that my stack had a dominant theme: cultivating habits of greater focus. A few of the books I randomly grabbed:

  • Getting to It! Accomplishing the Important, Handling the Urgent, and Removing the Unnecessary by Jones Loflin & Todd Musig (library near you)
  • Driven to Distraction at Work by Edward Hallowell (library near you)
  • Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchin Rubin (library near you)
  • The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (library near you)

I realized this a few moments are reading Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (library near you).

I won’t need my therapist to help me decipher what this means. I waste a lot of time worrying about prioritizing my time and whether or not I am well-focused on the most useful things. A related anxiety: many of the things I do in my daily life are done on a kind of autopilot without deep attention or thought.

Intrigued by this non-accidental accretion of books, I thumbed through several to get a sense of what I was up against. The first chapter of Getting to It! is an assault of questions:

  • “At any time of day, do you find yourself saying ‘When I get the time I will…’ or ‘One day when things are different…’ and then realizing how familiar that sounds? Do you reflect on the past five years and become frustrated..?”
  • “What if a high percentage of your tasks and actions were actually contributing to accomplishing those things that matter to you?”
  • “What if you felt you actually had time..?”
  • “What if you actually enjoyed…?”
  • “What if some of the chores on your list…?”
  • and on and on ad naseum

I put the book aside. The questions were annoying and the cadence familiar. It was the steady, rhythmic incantation of the infomercial man. Time management. Clearer priorities. A tidier, better organized life-space. Close cousins to Kaboom! Cleaner and Oxyclean laundry detergent.

I piled the self-help books together in a bag to take back to work. I’m all for a bit of ass-kicking inspiration now and then. Sometimes I need a quick recap of things I already know. But, for the most part, I already know what needs to be done. Less time thinking; more time doing. And reading about the thinking about the doing isn’t very helpful.

To paraphase the sage George Carlin: if you read a book that somebody else wrote about self-help, isn’t that just help?

So I begin my new year by setting the self-help books aside. I am one step closer to spending my time the way it actually needs to be spent.

Worry less. Do more.

Rinse. Repeat.


Grateful for Difficulty

This past year and the year before have been the most challenging years of my life. We continued to adjust to the loss of my mother-in-law. We did our best to help an angry, tired grandmother die comfortably and with as much dignity as possible. My considerate, sweet 8 year old daughter became an obstinate punk. My marriage wobbled under new stresses. I lost my way, for a time, both personally and professionally.

But here’s the thing. These past two years have also been the richest years of my life. Our losses are constant reminders of impermanence, a source of new urgency and clarity about things that actually matter.

My newly punkified 8 year old explores my patience daily and reminds me that respect in any relationship is earned through habits of sincerity and discipline. This isn’t only true between parents and children.

The challenges inside our marriage threw us both off our feet. We found a better way to stand together. At 41 years old, I fell in love again with the woman I have loved since I was 15 years old. I am learning there is no edge, no ceiling, no floor on how two people can commit and grow together. She is the best part of my life.

I am finding my way out of darkness and I am traveling lighter and with greater clarity of purpose. Instead of constantly taking things on, I am pairing things down. I am learning to set down the burdens that do not properly belong to me.

I used to believe a good life was crowded, exciting and easy. I am coming to know that the good life is simple, steady and full of difficulty.

And this is my new year wish for you: that your life be filled with difficulty, frustrations and obstacles. And that, in difficulty, you may find your better self. That your relationships grow sweeter and your days more urgent. Our time together here is very short. Every moment matters.


Apocalypse (Flash fiction?)

I wrote this thing. It scares me. You don’t need to read it. I just needed to post so it could think I wasn’t afraid.

***

I see you. Sitting there at your computer screen, waiting for something to happen. For something to occur.

You are terrified. This awful bath of feeling. All of the dread. All of the anxiety. All of the frustration. All of it bathing you, rending your nerves, bathing your best intentions.

I wonder. Can you see me staring back at you? Can you feel my breath on your face?

I am here, right with you. Think of me, if you can, as an angel of mercy. An angel of deliverance.

I bring release. I bring relief. I bring apocalypse.

Where have you gone? Was that too much?

Why does this word frighten you so much?

Would you rather the truth be more palatable? Would you prefer an easier term for it? Transformation? Change? Personal growth?

Pardon me, while I swallow down this little bit of puke. It is vile, a terrible thing to see.

There is so much waste. So much potential unspent.

You sit there in your chair, aching for something you cannot touch. You have built a throne from the unspent coin of your dreams.

You ache to be ferocious. You ache to share this devastating beauty.

It cannot last. It cannot last.

This voice. Its truth makes you frantic. It will steal your purpose and your poise. It will rob you of the thing you most need to do.

And the hurtful thing, the diabolical reality, is that every part of it is true. There is no escape but to swim through the hateful center of it.

Dark things. Dark things. Swallow them down. Digest them. Let them nourish your mind.

You will say I am a cruel keeper. That I bring darkness and decay.

But that is not the entire truth of it. It is only the part you have let yourself see.

This thing is true. I am darkness. I am decay. But stay a moment longer and you will see what your mind could not prepare you to see. I am the darkness after the decadence. I am the rot after disease.

And when, at last, you learn to recognize these feelings for what they are, only then can you become what you are meant to be. Lean forward. Recognize the truth of this and know the true meaning of apocalypse. I am not death. I am not the end.

I am an angel of mercy. I bring with me only truth. I bring deliverance. I have come to set you free.

I am apocalypse. The full eruption of your truest self.

Are you ready? Lean closer. Breathe deep. Pull it into you.

Now, clear your mind. Let everything that is not you float away. Everything that is left is you.

Does it surprise you?

Good.

Lean forward. A friendly kiss on your furrowed brow.

Now you can begin.


Hallelujah (Flash Fiction)

Prompt: Hallelujah (performed by Matthew Schuler)

He sits in the chair, gritting his teeth against the thunderous ache inside his head, while the woman, Delilah, cuts his hair. Just a trim, he had agreed but quickly sickened at the sight of so much hair falling down around his shoulders, sliding down the front of his shirt, and the constant biting teeth of those furious scissors working their way toward his skull. And the pain inside his head, how like a bare, bright lightbulb scorching the surface with incandescent glow.

This is not a metaphor, he tells himself. This is happening. And the fear rises up inside again and he knows it will be such a simple thing to stand, push himself away from this chair and have her carried out of the kitchen. But it is three in the morning and the smell of her, her expert, nimble fingers, the sultry flash of that subtle smile. And he is kept sitting while hair falls in luxurious brown drifts. The piles of it at his feet.

The dog is whining and will not look at him. The kitchen is dark. She is working with only the light from the open refrigerator door.

She dips the comb into the bowl of water. “Almost done,” she promises, feeling the sudden tense of his muscles desperate to push her out and away from him.

He presses his hands against his thighs, careful to keep them occupied and from seeking mayhem. She would not be the first woman he had ever hit. The thought did not make him proud. But before he could finish it, she kissed him on the back of his neck. His skin prickled at the flower petal press of her lips.

She lay down the scissors. Stood back, admiring her work.

He was dizzy, nauseous with fear and shame. How could she do this to him? How could he allow it to happen?

He studies her face, her uncertain smile sliding into some other, stranger expression. She was hard enough to decipher in the daylight. At night, impossible.

And he stands, unsteady on his feet, watching the dog scurry away at the terrible sight of him.

She reaches out to steady him but he pushes her away, reaching instead for the kitchen counter.

“Show me,” he mutters. And she reaches up with a small silver hand mirror. The mirror gleams in the frigid kitchen light. This smallest of hours, where nothing good or useful is ever made. The hour where only regret is born. He pulls the towel around himself, suddenly feeling cold as a corpse.

She is there, waiting, and the dog is there, whimpering, and he is there, bathed in the meager gruel of moon and appliance light. And in the mirror is some new, smaller person. A shorn person. A hindered and crippled face.

He howls. The dog howls.

Lights in neighbor’s windows are lit as people part their curtains, glance out, then pull them closed. They wake up and brew the first pots of heavy, dark coffee. A melancholy beverage for a melancholy morning in this new kind of kingdom.


There is a voice.

There is a voice, right now, telling you something you need to hear. Pay attention. That voice is trying to help you.

There is a voice telling you it is time to get started. It is urgent. It is imperative. Go. Now.

There is an uncomfortable truth waiting for you. You are wasting time, precious moments of your life, doing something that does not sustain you. This thing is killing you. It will rob you blind if you let it.

There is a voice that speaks with calm, quiet assurance. It sounds like your voice though it seems to come from somewhere outside of you. What greater proof do you need to know that you are more than just your body? That your heart and your mind are cosmic engines built for a singular purpose, to propel you from where you are right now to where you belong.

Trust them. Lean in. Listen.


The Reason I’m Not Writing

It isn’t laziness. It isn’t procrastination or a lack of clear ideas. It is fear.

Best face it direct. Best call it by name.

Fear steals days, then months, then years.

Fear keeps me sitting in the place where I do not belong.

Fear keeps me small, uncomfortable, frustrated.

And there is only one way out of this. The only way out is through.

There is mercy for when you are brave. There is reward for when you persist.

First the words. Then the sentence. Until a paragraph. Then another. And another.


Hard to Remember (Flash Fiction)

Prompt: “Lives” by Modest Mouse

***

Its hard to remember that life is short. It feels so long sometimes.

These thoughts curling like smoke inside her skull.

Christine lit another cigarette, trying not to notice the small but growing pile of crushed butts on the deck railing. She promised Mark she wouldn’t smoke again, but it was an unfair promise to make. It hadn’t started as a desire for the cigarette, the nicotine. What drew her at first was the little spark, that small, incendiary flash of light near her fingers as she struck another match.

Her hands shook, just a little, before that small ignition. Mark hadn’t noticed yet, that slight palsy creeping into her hands. When he did, she would tell him not to worry, that it is was just the usual anxiety setting in.

And there were times when she could let herself believe that was true. That the faint tremor at her periphery, minor really, was no concern. And the way her fingers steadied once the match was lit and the cigarette kissed with flame made it easier to trust.

But trust is not truth.Truth is more complicated. Truth is the way her right foot dragged the ground sometimes when she walked. Truth was the pins and needles in her toes, the way her entire foot sometimes felt like an anchor plunged in a dark, cold sea.

She hadn’t seen a doctor yet. Where was the point in that? They could only run tests. They could only place her somewhere on the mathematical spectrum of possibility.

Christine had been through it before with her father. She had carried him to every appointment, each visit a bit more to manage each time as the withering penetrated and ate him alive from the edges.

There were medications. Blizzards of prescription pads. Endless cocktails of pills, large and small. The Blue Chokers. The Pink Pukers. And the mysterious purple that always seemed to lodge sideways in the throat, refusing to be swallowed.

And between medications, the interminable scans and pictures. The intrusion of cameras and images as the team of technologists mapped and photographed her father’s interior self. She had seen her father turned into a ghost before his time. The furtive image of bone and muscle and sinew. The constant reminder of things inside that would eventually come out. And the feeling that the images and scans were all futile. So much useless espionage into the unseen corridors of her father’s inner works, each documenting a new stage, a new progression.

Perhaps it was better not to know. Christine thought of Mark. Some things are better hidden.

Except that everything hidden gets revealed some time.

This was the brutal truth of life. Everything hidden gets revealed.

Christine crushed the cigarette, lit another and inhaled, waiting for Mark to come home.


Star Wars Belongs to Everyone

A few weeks ago, I enjoyed being interviewed by a student at the college where I work about my interest in Star Wars and why so many people are so excited about the new film. His question: “Why is Star Wars important to you?”

Being an academic librarian, I immediately launched into a bunch of words about Jungian archetypes and Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. We talked about the importance of mythology and where mythology comes from and where we find it in our own society and then I stopped and laughed, realizing that was all completely wrong.

It was true but it wasn’t the right answer to his very simple question. He had asked why Star Wars is important to me. I espoused a bunch of psycholiterary babble, which got toward the raw materials of what Star Wars is about. But the answer to his real question is simple and took a little work to admit. “Its the toys,” I said, smiling. I was thinking of the hundreds of hours I spent playing with Star Wars action figures from the ages of 5 to 13. I had a handful of figures, a few ships and, at one point, the Death Star complete with throne room and working trash compactor.

I had friends who had more and better toys. I never had the Millennium Falcon or Slave I. It didn’t matter. The hours I spent playing with those figures — in my room, in the basement, outside – were my earliest kinds of storytelling. They were, I realize now, the earliest moments of my creative life. The fierce battles. The harrowing rescues. The improbable interspecies romances. A sprawling, intergalactic tangle of story. A glorious mashup of Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and G.I. Joe. Whatever I saw on television, whatever books or comics I read, all went into the mix. A wonderous jumble of thoughts, ideas and experiments. My stories were borrowed things, mixed from a melange of sources and made new.

And now, at 41 years old, I find the raw materials of my childhood purchased by Disney, rebooted for a new age and I cannot be happier. Many of my friends are expecting Disney to screw it up. To get more of the prequel mess that some thought dampened some of the joy of their childhood. Doesn’t bother me. More stories are a good thing. An expanded, sprawling universe of new storylines and explorations, one new movie every year for many years to come, is only a good thing. Even if they miss the tone. Even if they completely step on sacred toes and butcher all the sacred cows. More stories mean even more material for the imaginations of even more people to tell their own stories. More childhoods like my own.

This is why Star Wars matters very much. It is permission to make stories from universal themes. Disney has a talent for capturing creative content, connecting it to the popular mindset and making a ton of money at it. They also have a knack for protecting their market with absurdly long copyright carve outs. An interesting paradox that the company best known for locking up intellectual property to keep it from the public domain will be perpetuating a line of stories that will generate more and better folk art. More and better stories. And as we tell them to each other, we will be reminded that even though it is a most closely managed licensed property, Star Wars really does belong to everybody.


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