30 December 2015

Seven boxes


'For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?' Mark 8:36

In my parents' house, in Gurnee, Illinois, there are seven boxes with my things: the dark matter of life. In its concrete sense, dark matter is a thing that we think is there, but we can't see. We infer its presence from its effects. When you are standing at the top of a hill in Harborne in Birmingham in the United Kingdom where I live, at three in the morning because you can't sleep and the church bells are ringing, the things in those boxes, they speak through time to you: you know what's there, or what you think might be there. Your journals. Your empty CD cases. Your Bible awards. You stand and look up at the ringing church bells, how many thousands of miles away, and you can feel it pulling on you.

Chicago is my lost city: I come back and remember a time in my life I made plans to stay and be here forever. In my senior year at Knox, I was going to do research at the Newberry Library. I was going to have a small studio apartment near Washington Square Park. And then, the next year, I interviewed for a job in the Aon Center. I wore a black suit.

The dark matter of those years, when I left high school and went to college, is piled up in short stories I wrote for writing classes and in textbooks. Poems about hands and breasts. In a lunchbox I bought as a joke in 2001 before the towers exploded, there are all the pictures of my band. The fire red Gibson SG with those pick ups. (They make such a fat sound, I say to Yoko in Japanese and ask if that metaphor works: if I say the sound is fat, do you understand?)

Before I came back home for Christmas this year with Yoko, my wife, and my three children, I made a plan to finally deal with my things, to throw away and give away all that I could. All the books. My papers. My past as an Evangelical and conservative Republican. Most of it was comedy, my letters to the editor I wrote as jokes when I was 12 and 13. A response from Oprah Winfrey to a letter I had written her (I had written Oprah a letter). But there was also the dark, dark matter. The dark matter of a failed high school relationship, and the things I was unable to throw away the last times I had been home. I didn't know what they were exactly until I was holding them, swallowing, traveling in time. A box of Virgina Slims, cigarettes I had taken from her in a fit of self-righteous rage. When I had faith.

There are some stories you can't tell without implicating others. I don't want to implicate anyone else. I can only tell the bits of the stories that implicate me, a seventeen-year-old hand holding another hand. There was some point in my life when I could follow the story past my own body, into hers, but it's been fifteen years and now the story stalls. There are only artefacts: the cigarettes, a pair of socks, and photos.

When I was in England, I thought I might see her and catch up, but when the time came, I almost panicked like I needed to escape. What was I doing, what sort of complex lie was I telling myself. Instead, I sat waiting with tea and let myself remember, look out into the snowy darkness, the cars passing, all of Chicago aware that the lost son has come home for the night and looking back at me like an absence, a Tolstoyan void. The well of memory doesn't dry up. It's a metaphor.

Chicago, I lost you, but I gained the world. Istanbul, yes, and Paris. London and Dhaka. A Sunday morning in Moscow and then Seoul and then Seoul again. Madrid. Amsterdam, when I was drunk on that bike. Rome, of course. Tokyo, and the night I smoked outside the walls of the palace. Fukuoka. Kuala Lumpur. Vientienne, and the Mekong River. Bangkok. In the absence of god's perfect plan for my life, I had set out to gain the world, the parts of it I could at least. We have to, don't we. We have no choice but to make our own path when we are led into the thicket. When we are stuck, when we have no way out, we must take risks. We must say the things to the absences in our lives that we mean to say to ourselves. You don't need to implicate others, do you. We want forgiveness, but we can only forgive ourselves. We want understanding, but then we only need to understand ourselves. When finally you can say the things you needed to say, you are just speaking out loud to yourself. You look back at yourself when you were young and you say, don't worry. It's okay. You're okay.

Standing ankle deep in snow slush on North Wells, I finally realise this. After all these years. I am pushing a black Ford, the tyres spinning in the ice. A man comes out of nowhere to push with me. And then another and another. The car rocks back and forth and back and forth without going anywhere. Back and forth and back and forth and then the feeling you have when you are pushing a car and it breaks free. You are suddenly pushing against nothing. You are standing there with your bag. You are alone after having not been alone, but you can do anything, can't you. The world is yours.
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