Thursday, September 23, 2010

The fall

Thursday marks the first day of autumn. Summer is dead. And now begins the quiet-slow approach of the Long Dark.

Here on the Island of Rain, where cape-wearing neo-druid loonies use Thursday to commemorate a Welsh bloke, the weather has been autumnal for most of September. As early as the month's first week, conditions were ripe for sitting outside and getting lost in thought. That's what autumn does to me: sends my mind spinning through the golden and melancholy.

Admittedly, I am given to that sort of thing year-round. A smell, or image, or feeling, or sound, or action, or atmospheric condition will spark a forgotten thing to flash through my mind and then lock me into that place. Sometimes the memory is good, sometimes bad, and for a brief moment I am reliving it -- feeling a condensed version of all I felt when it was real.

In autumn, the cycle of those memories seems to accelerate and I spend my days in constant emotional rise and fall. My head heaves with memories, which then grab hold of my thoughts and spin wildly in an exhausting, never-ending dance.

Autumn induces terrible homesickness for Minnesota, where the Minnesota and Mississippi valleys will soon be great corridors of colour -- yellow, orange and red lining the banks of wide, slow rivers. On Saturdays and Sundays friends are now packing into each others' houses to watch football. In Jordan they are picking apples. In northeast Minneapolis they're dancing the polka. In St. Paul they are driving even slower, windows down, savouring their afternoon commute. And at schools and universities all across the state, new boys are falling for new girls and feeling that this is the year when they finally get things right.

Those are memories. In the uncertain present, I am here in Jonesland questioning my uncertain future. At night, I'm awoken by anxiety and loneliness. I lie in bed and listen to the silence, occasionally broken by my neighbour's wind chimes or a car accelerating toward Llantrisant. Sometimes I cry, but mostly I stare at the ceiling, afraid of what's coming: the Long Dark. Another winter.

Emotionally, last winter began exactly 365 days ago Thursday, when this happened, and carried on until early April. It was a terrible winter. Some nights I would think (and quietly hope) the pain was going to kill me, that I would collapse in on myself from all the hollowness inside. I didn't really notice until May it had gone away.

Now summer and its joys have left me too quickly. Autumn is here -- a beautiful season, but one leading to winter. And I am so afraid of another terrible winter I can't sleep. At times I feel sick.

In the autumn 14 years ago I travelled out to Brittany to visit my girlfriend at the time. She lived in a hundreds-of-years-old home with a family that enjoyed staring suspiciously at her visiting boyfriend. She had been provided with a smallish white-painted room with high ceilings and a large French window that looked out over a tree-lined pedestrian mall, where startlingly attractive French mothers would sit on park benches with immaculately well-dressed French children. Actually, they were probably startlingly attractive Welsh au pairs with immaculately well-dressed French children; I know of a number of pretty Welsh girls currently helping to rear another country's future citizens.

I was 20 years old at the time and therefore not given to expressing appreciation for things like French windows. I expressed appreciation for my girlfriend's breasts. That was the beauty that was relevant to me. But the windows somehow worked their way into my memory and I have long wished for a home of my own solely for the purpose of being able to install French windows similar to those in a house where a girlfriend once lived.

The doors were wooden framed and heavy with several years' coats of paint, so they were difficult to force shut. Once that was achieved, they were held closed by a simple cabin-hook latch. Within the windows' frame was a system of curtaining: thin white voile to allow in sun but help keep out insects and casual prying eyes; long curtains to block out the light; and heavy old drapes to be drawn across the windows against autumnal evening chill. In the winter, all three were deployed and thick-painted-white wooden shutter doors were closed over them, held tight by a falling crossbar latch.

I remember lying in bed with her in December -- the duvet pulled up to our chins -- and looking over at the shuttered windows, feeling safe and content to be barricaded in against the icy cold. That's what I wish I could do now. I want to batten heavy doors over each of my windows and defend myself against the approaching attritional British winter and all its misery. I don't want to feel it. I don't want to suffer it. I don't want to be alone and cold.

But perhaps this is not the soggy hill for my last stand. Perhaps, rather than digging in, I should be running. Off to a place where the winters are so much more vicious but there are friends to embrace and to laugh with, so the cold makes one feel alive. It's part of what keeps me up at night; I am paralysed with indecision. Meanwhile, the Long Dark lumbers forward. It is coming either way. It won't wait for me to make up my mind.

I am sure reading this sort of thing grows tiresome. Imagine how exhausting it is to live it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A letter home: 15 September 2010

My dearest Emma,

Greetings from across the Atlantic Ocean. Or, perhaps, from across the room. Since you are a figment of my imagination I don't suppose there are any geographical restrictions on where exactly you are not.

In light of the fact you don't exist, I don't suppose I can be too upset at you for not having written in some time. But, honestly, Emma, I'm not sure it's all that great an excuse. Nonetheless, I thought I'd get in touch and let you know what's been going on in my life over the past month or so.

I suppose the biggest news of late is that Lisa broke up with me. She couldn't handle the awesomeness. That's been the downfall of many a young lady: I am simply too awesome.

In truth, though, I think it was an issue of timing. Sometimes you meet a lovely person at the wrong time.

Either way, it is a big ball of suck. I am living the cliché life of the mid-30s man I never wanted to be. And in light of this, I find it suddenly so easy to identify negatives. It's as if the bleakness of my life is displayed via Cover Flow, the iTunes feature that organises music by placing it in a kind of picture wheel. All the bad things have been pushed forward, highlighted and enlarged.

This month marks the one-year anniversary of Rachel's leaving. I can still remember very clearly standing on platform 1 of Cardiff Central station, watching her train pull away and thinking I should run after it or something -- run and jump on, or take the next train and catch up with her before she left for America. Instead, I went home and cried until exhaustion.

Being again single I can confess to you, Emma, that I do still miss her. When I was in Lake Jackson this past July I couldn't help but notice pictures of me and Rachel are still up throughout my grandparents' house. My grandmother loves Rachel -- thinks the world of her. Note use of the present tense. One day she caught my eye wandering over to one of the pictures and asked: "Chris, don't you miss her?"

"Oh, yeah," I said. "Every day."

I'm not sure what missing amounts to, though. And not sure it matters. One of the things that always tickled me about Rachel was her practicality. The first time I asked her out, she refused on grounds that she had no intention of marrying me and there is no point in going out with someone you don't intend to marry. She has moved on by now, and there is probably no point in her missing someone she doesn't want to be with.

Meanwhile, back in ol' Caerdydd, financial strain is turning to panic. If you remove the money I need in order to pay October's rent, I have £90 to my name. I start teaching in less than a fortnight but I am concerned about the interim between now and getting paid, and whether teaching will actually be enough.

It spurs thoughts of returning to the United States. Every town has its ups and downs, sang the rooster in the Disney version of Robin Hood. Sometimes the ups outnumber the downs. But not in Nottingham. Nor in Caerdydd, or so it sometimes feels. In measuring the past four years I have a fancy education, a book no one will read and a book no one can read -- those are the ups. I also have insurmountable debt, homesickness, loneliness and a broken heart.

But we both know, Emma, that it's easy for me to say I want to go back home and much harder for me to say how it would work. What exactly would I do with my bachelors and masters degrees in Welsh? How would I overcome all the things that made me so angry with the United States in the first place? Hell, I left before the Tea Party movement existed. Going home would be a bit like Stanislav returning to Russia at the end of William Owen Roberts' Petrograd.

There's a Welsh literature reference for you, Emma. I know how much you love those.

Thomas Aquinas said bad exists to help highlight the good. That's a pessimistic view, I think, but it stresses there are no situations that are entirely bad. For example, the lumbering great wheels of the "Strictly Come Dancing" circus wagon have begun to turn again. I love that show, Emma. Honestly, this morning as I was thinking about leaving Britain I thought: "Well, maybe I'll wait until after the 'Strictly' final."

My love for the programme is almost certainly indicative of mental disease. But artists are disturbed people, Emma. Many drink themselves to death or destroy their bodies and minds with drugs. I like to think of myself as an artist and if I can get by on being addicted to low-level celebrities doing the rhumba, it's probably best to just leave me chasing that dragon.

Publishing The Way Forward has been another positive. Welsh novelist Ifan Morgan Jones recently appeared to suggest that authors should be more forthcoming about the number of books they sell. The logic, I think, being that if you know how many books are sold you can make a determination on whether the author is any good. Because as we all learned from "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?", the audience is always right. I'm inclined to believe Jones said this in part because he won the Daniel Owen prize, which resulted in his selling a lot of books. Though, it's worth noting he didn't give a specific number, simply stating he had sold in the "thousands."

I won't tell you how many copies of The Way Forward I've sold thus far, Emma. Part of the reason I published via Kindle was reaction against the "sales = good" equation. And by putting chapters on my blog I am hoping people will see the book is good regardless of who else is or isn't buying. I will say, though, that sales are meeting my expectations. I will also say that my expectations were low.

I think I have a strong enough portfolio to call myself a writer, Emma -- something I have strived toward since I was a little boy writing stories about kung-fu parrots and underground houses with roller-coasters. What I struggle with now is getting the word "professional" to stick before that title.

But it's what I want to be. It's what I need to be. As frustrating as that is to everyone involved.

You might remember my telling you last month I had deleted all of my masters work. I wasn't happy with it. I didn't feel it represented what I was capable of and didn't want to attach my name to it.

I think I also have a naturally self-destructive streak, Emma -- something a number of friends have identified over the years. One of the beauties of being a writer is that I can destroy imaginary worlds rather than my own. The delete key is my nuclear button and some evil part of my soul likes to keep a finger hovering above it. It is perhaps not wise to delete one's masters project just a few months before it is due, but it was my work, my little world, and my right to destroy it.

My dad didn't agree, though.

"Just because it's your tree, on your property, do you really have a moral right to cut it down?" he asked.

I'm not sure the analogy is sound, but I understood he was upset because I had seemingly abandoned the thing that he had emotionally and financially invested in helping me obtain. Perhaps you felt something similar, Emma.

You and he will be happy to know, then, that I have been given an extension on the project's due date. I've started over and am happier with the depth and voice I'm giving the novel. I wonder, however, whether it will be my last big-scale Welsh-language effort. I find writing in Welsh to be not all that satisfying or profitable. It's hard to be sure, though. Things said in bleakness's glow often prove later to be inaccurate.

Well, that's all the news from the Island of Rain. I hope you are well. Please send pictures of yourself naked.

I remain your humble servant,

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Documenting my mental decline

There was something about the day -- the weather, the way the sun hit -- that set my mind spinning off to another place. Leaning up against my garden shed last week, I found myself thinking about early October in Minnesota. I remembered sitting in my truck at the U of M campus. I remembered the breeze moving along the Mississippi River valley and pushing newly planted trees in the parking lot.

Now, several years later and thousands of miles away, I felt the weather-beaten rough of the shed against my back and picked apart my orange. Above my head I heard a scratching noise. A small orange and black cat had crawled onto the shed's roof.


It was one of the pair of cats that used to hang out down the road. In the spring, they would escort me and Lisa when we walked up to the petrol station or bus stop. When I came back from the United States I noticed that a particularly chavvy family had moved out and that the cats were no longer ensuring safe passage through Radyr Way. I assumed the cats had belonged to the family and had been bundled up and taken elsewhere.

But here was one of them, looking skinny and timid.

"What? You want some of my orange? I doubt it. Here: there's a piece of orange. Want it?"

The cat sniffed at the slice of fruit in my hand and backed away slightly.

"Yeah, see? I thought so. But an orange is what I'm having, dude. If you don't want that, you're just S.O.L."
"Yeah, well. Don't know what to tell ya."

The cat moved to the other side of the shed, balanced on the fence and dropped down to the ground. It did that cat thing of somehow walking directly at me in an indirect way.

"An orange, dude. That's what I've got. Take it or leave it."

The cat stood close to my leg, then pressed against it. He made a few passes, circling my legs and pressing up against them. Looking down, I could see the thinness of his stomach and haunches.

"Oh, I see. You're trying to play at my emotions. Piss off. That won't work."
"Look, I don't have anything a cat would want, OK?"
"No, really. I don't. Surely you have a better sense of smell than me -- can you not tell that the people down the road are having a barbecue? I can. I can smell sausages. Go ask them for some food."

The cat continued to press against my leg. Something about how thin it was, how small it was, made me hurt inside. It mixed with the sadness of lost golden autumn days and pushed at my ribs.

"I really don't, though. I haven't gone shopping this week. I can't even think of what you would want. I don't even have milk and I'm pretty the whole cats-love-milk thing is more a cliché than reality."
"Yeah, yeah. I'm thinking. Hold on."

I thought back to my birthday, when my parents had sent a strange hamper of gifts. It was more the sort of thing you would send to an old lady than a man in his 30s. What had amused me most, however, was the canned ham. I couldn't imagine who would want to eat that: even the picture on the tin made it look awful. I had eventually decided to use it as an ironic bookend.

"OK, I think I've got something."

I now walked into the house and grabbed the tin of ham, brought it outside and knelt down as I opened the tin. It had a 1950s-style key that slots into a strip of metal which then peels away. I had only ever seen that sort of thing in cartoons and struggled to get it to open properly. The cat moved in close and pawed at my arm.

"Yeah, I know. Calm down."
"Do you have opposable thumbs? No. This shit isn't going to open itself, so I'm all you've got. I'm working on it.

I managed to open a section of the tin, then pried it the rest of the way open. The ham plopped out onto the pavement like a slimy, rejected alien baby. The cat looked at it.

"What? What do you want? It's a fucking ham. Don't be picky with me, man. My dad probably paid good money for that."

The cat looked at the ham again. He turned his head, sniffed at it, pawed at it.

"Oh, right. It's probably a bit big for you. OK, I'll go get a fork and knife and cut it into smaller chunks. Stay there."

I came back out with knife and fork, knelt down again and started pulling it into smaller, manageable pieces. The cat took immediate interest, gulping down the meat as I continued to cut more chunks. I cut up about half of the ham and then tossed the rest into a shrub, figuring a fox or raven would be able to take care of it later. Then I stood up and watched the cat eat. I stood motionless and quiet. He was making what I can only describe as happy sounds -- meowing and purring between gobbled pieces.

"Yeah. OK. Well, no one likes to be watched while they eat, do they? I'm going to leave you be."

I walked back into the house and leaned against the kitchen counter, arms folded. I looked out through the window and watched the cat eat. And inside of myself I felt a sort of thing that I can't really describe: a kind of simple but immense joy that I can't quite remember ever feeling before. It was silly. I had managed to feed a stray cat, but his happiness in that act welled up in my chest. The simplicity of it, his gratitude, that sunny September day. I felt my face go hot and found myself crying.

"Ah, hell. What is wrong with me? And next weekend I'll be watching 'Strictly Come Dancing.' I need help."

Monday, September 6, 2010

Minnesota in a picture

My brother, Jon, and his girlfriend, Vanessa, at the Minnesota State Fair. I love this picture.