Tuesday, August 24, 2010

We are names on jetty railing

I've been feeling the panic lately. About all sorts of things.

I am down to my last £1,000 with no idea of when I'll next see a paycheck. I start a job in September, but I don't actually know when they will pay me. My novel, The Way Forward, is soon to be available on Amazon but I'll personally be surprised if it earns enough money to buy me a nice dinner.

I generally try not to worry too much about money. Some of the unhappiest periods of my life have been wasted in its pursuit. I don't spend a lot, but as the money slips away without replenishment I can't help but start in on worst-case scenarios, most of which end with my being deported. Pretty much every bad thing ends that way in my head: "Oh, no. I don't have enough money. I'm going to end up being deported." "Oh, I slept late. I'm going to end up being deported."

Meanwhile, my masters project is due in less than four weeks. This used to not be a problem. I had completed the bulk of the project a while ago. But then, in a fit of frustration, I deleted everything.

"I can do better than this," I thought.

And poof, it was gone.

"Holy shit," the literary genius said when I told her. "Never delete. Never ever ever."

But that's the way I roll, yo. Siân argues that you can always pull something good out of work you're not happy with, even if it's just a sentence or concept. But I struggle with that. It feels I am thinking of myself too highly. I mean, if I'm not willing to wipe things clean, aren't I suggesting that what I write is somehow too good to throw away? Why is it too good? Because I am so awesome I'm incapable of writing poorly?

There may have been one or two good lines in all that was lost but I don't want to go on salvaging expeditions in deep wells of shit. That consumes time and energy and, I worry, deadens my sense of what's good. If I were to try to fix it all I would start out OK, lose focus, and soon be in the state of thinking: "Well, it's not that bad. That'll do... It's acceptable."

I would rather start all over again. I don't regret the decision, simply the timing of the decision. I now have zero words and less than four weeks.

So, the panic slips into my room at night, wraps its arms around me and whispers: "The end is closing in on you. You won't make things right this time. Soon they'll be coming to deport you."

But, in truth: this, too, shall pass.

During my recent visit to the United States I found myself thinking a lot about the consolation of impermanence -- the gentle heartbreaking joy of knowing everything changes, whether I want it to or not.


Above is a picture of the jetty at Quintana Beach, in Texas.

A sign on the outskirts of the town (population 38) claims Quintana was founded in 1528. How in the hell they justify that claim, I can't imagine. No manmade thing could survive so long under the constant attack of hurricanes and storms and wind and tide and heat and humidity. Even the landscape holds no claim to immutability.

One assumes that the 1528 date refers to Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish explorer who was shipwrecked in the region that year. He referred to the area as Malhado (misfortune). He shipwrecked because he had no maps of the place. He called it Malhado because he ended up being taken as a slave by Karankawa indians. It is unlikely that at any point during that time, he drove a flag into the ground and said: "I hereby charter a town in this spot, thus forth to be known as: 'Quintana.'"

After several years, he managed to escape and walked, naked, all the way to Culiacán, roughly 900 miles away, as the crow flies. He eventually died penniless in Spain, disgraced because of his reputation as being too kind toward Native American peoples. No doubt Cabeza de Vaca understood better than most the idea that God hates plans.

By nature, human beings desire structure. We seek to identify patterns, to understand them and to establish them. It is how we grasp the universe around us. We put our hopes into the promise of cause and effect, and we find solace in the concept of permanence. So, we build castles and erect monuments and make ridiculously unverifiable claims as to when our towns were founded. We set out shockingly detailed plans for our lives and think everything's going to run smoothly.

But God surprises us with babies and cancer, true love and earthquakes. He likes to mess with our plans, he likes to tear down our permanent structures. Quintana always reminds me of that.

The houses don't last long in Quintana -- storms tear them down and drag them out to sea.

There used to be a wooden railing along the jetty. It was put in during my teenage years. My uncles and cousins carved my paternal grandmother's name into it after she died. My maternal grandmother took me out to show me: "RIP Joie Cope." But within a decade, every last bit of the railing was gone. All that's left now are the twisted, rusting anchoring pieces the wood had been bolted to.

When I was visiting this past July, my grandmother and I walked to the end of the jetty, roughly 1.5 miles out into the sea. As you walk back toward shore, the ominous glistening of chemical plants dominate your view. After Cabeza de Vaca left, no one really took interest in the area until Dow Chemical Co. decided to build one of the largest chemical manufacturing sites in the world there in 1940. Or so I had always thought.

"There used to be hotels all up and down here in the early 1900s," my grandmother said, sweeping a hand across the horizon. "Wealthy English people would come and stay here. Then a hurricane came along and took it all out."

There is nothing to suggest they were ever there. Nothing. God hates plans. Change will always come. The structures and patterns we lock ourselves into will eventually be wiped away and no one will know they were ever there. I find that strangely comforting: everything goes away.

The panic comes at night and whispers in my ear: "The end is closing in on you."

And on my good nights I whisper back: "It's closing in on you, too."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A letter home: 21 August 2010

My dearest Emma,

I suppose I should begin with an apology for not having written sooner. Actually, this is the first time I have ever written to you. I'm sorry.

I justify my lack of correspondence with the fact you don't actually exist. You are a figment of my imagination, created simply as a way of writing a letter to my friends and family without having to go to the trouble of writing them individually. I'm sorry to break it to you this way; I'm using you.

Many moons ago, Emma -- when bison still roamed the plain and White Man had not yet stolen our land -- I would sit in my miserably cold room in Ballard Hall, on the campus of what was then known as Moorhead State University, churning out handwritten letters to friends and family members. The university is now known as Minnesota State University Moorhead (nothing says "quality learning institution" like the need for rebranding) and I haven't handwritten a letter in such a long time I can't even guess at the timeframe.

When I write to people now it is always by e-mail. Well, if I write to them. Back in those Arcadian days at Moorhead, I would write two or three letters a day. Now, I have unanswered e-mails in my inbox dating back to more than a year ago, when Jessica Town was telling me she wished she could live in San Antonio. I don't think she was referring to the Chilean port city, but instead the Texan metropolis that's an hour or so down the road from Austin. I don't know, though, Emma, because I never wrote her back. I am a shit friend.

So, my darling fictitious inamorata, I am writing to you and posting this letter to my blog. I'm hoping my friends and family in the United States will see it, and it will be good enough correspondence that they will continue to put beer in my hand and food in my belly on the rare occasions I get to see them face to face.

The weather here on this island of rain has been good as of late. August is not so bad in Britain. It is almost never hot but very rarely cold. The trees are still lush and green. In those afternoons when the sun can be seen, it shines golden and turns beautiful a place that in just a few months will become the embodiment of misery. I try not to think of the winter.

That is especially true this year, because almost certainly winter will be the time when I have run completely out of money and am living solely on the leftover food storage items collected by my ex-wife. Her religion tells her the end is nigh, so she used to prepare by putting bags and bags of rice in the attic. She's been gone a year now, Emma, but the food has not yet run out.

I am thankful. This past week was filled with warnings that food prices are set to rise roughly 3 percent overall by Christmas. According to Big Issue, the cost of wheat could go up as much as 15 percent. We're doomed, Emma. This is the Europe we were warned about as kids, remember? Concrete rainy inflation-strangled misery. Soon I will be standing in queue for bread and selling my used American bluejeans on the black market. Please send Pepsi.

My method of suffering the impending economic misery is piecemeal. In a few weeks I start work teaching Welsh to adults. At the same time I will be taking a course to earn full accreditation as a Welsh tutor. By this time next year I will have a bachelors degree in Welsh, a masters degree in Welsh and a Level 5 certification for teaching Welsh. I will be insanely well-qualified to do fuck all in the United States. But hopefully here it will earn me enough to pay rent.

I feel an obligation to be cheeky and self-effacing about the whole thing, but in honesty, Emma, I am looking forward to it. By teaching Welsh I'll be helping to bring new speakers into the Welsh-language world and that is something it desperately needs. Sometimes the Welsh-language world feels like a late-night bus out of city centre: the assholes are all too easy to find.

All languages and cultures need people to survive. What is a language without people to read or speak it? It is simply a pattern of squiggles, most likely incomprehensible to other species. To a dog, how are the patterns of words in The Sun Also Rises all that different to the patterns of tree bark? Most likely they are not; they are both just things to chew up or piss on.

Cultures are extensions of language. Strong languages and cultures are marked by size and diversity. In those things, Welsh language and its culture are lacking; it is the same small group of people doing the same things. The culture is so limited it alienates.

In teaching Welsh I'll be helping to add voices to the mix. It's true the majority of people I'll teach won't carry on to fluency and even fewer still will use their Welsh for anything more than conversations about their grandchildren. But it's still more voices, Emma. Only a few, but more. That can only be good.

With the rest of my time, I am writing. I have two books under way: one in Welsh and one in English. I am hoping to have both completed by the end of January. That may be a bit ambitious. I find that any time I write a book I must first spend several months saying I'm going to write a book.

More immediately, within the next fortnight, I intend to publish my first novel, The Way Forward.

You may remember it by its previous title, Drinking Stories. I've decided -- thanks to encouragement from the pride of Hirwaun -- to publish it electronically, for Kindle and the like.

Yes, I know what you're thinking, Emma. Stop rolling your eyes.

I have no doubt convincing people to buy it will be an uphill battle, especially in electronic form. But at the same time, I find the prospect exciting. And with the cost of Kindle having dropped recently, I think the medium is increasingly less prohibitive. I read recently Kindle books outsell physical books two to one on Amazon.com's U.S. site. Meanwhile, its UK site has temporarily sold out of the devices. It is not the fringe technology I'm sure a person on "Taro'r Post" would insist it is ("Taro'r Post" is a radio call-in programme on Radio Cymru, in which people seem to piss and moan about all kinds of new-fangled things, like light bulbs and voting rights for women).

The challenge will be the one I faced when I released a physical book last year: getting it noticed. I'll admit I'm not sure how to do that, Emma.

But, as I say, it's still a week or so away. I'll fill you in on details once I'm ready to publish.

And that's about all the news from this end of the pond. Please give my best to your mother.

I remain your humble servant,

PS - Have you ever heard of Timber Timbre, Emma? I think you would like them. Or him. I'm not sure I understand the trend of individual artists giving themselves band names. I suppose it's what Prince was trying to achieve with his squiggly design -- a separation between the person and the art. We are not what we create.