08. Vast Parking Lot

August 2020

I've started this newsletter many times over the past decade. There were a few rough attempts six or seven years ago when social media's toxins were becoming apparent yet the world still felt somewhat sensible. A few years later, I wrote some unsent drafts while living in a Wisconsin hospital-hotel with my father, waiting for a lung. I wanted to tell you about the grim dynamics of old men rooting for holiday car wrecks, hoping for an organ. I wanted to tell you how my father changed before my eyes, becoming a beacon of calm and one of my closest friends. Then I lost him, and I'm grateful I never sent those hopeful letters. Part of my mind still lives in those hospital rooms, thinking about loss and salvation and chance.

Late summer is the season my father received his lung, and these overripe days are twinned with memories of tubes, stitches, and bandages. The last week of August was when I lost my mother, and mourning has blurred into these sticky days when everything is so green it feels obscene. How do we observe the anniversaries of our dead? Some words from John Berger come to mind:

"There are no longer any acknowledged occasions for us to receive the dead and the unborn. There is each day's life, yet what surrounds us is a void. A void in which millions of us are today alone. And such solitude can transform death into a companion."

Reading Berger is always a shot in the arm, the way he urges us to engage with the texture of our memories, no matter how tragic or mundane—and to connect with that "wordless language which we have been reading since early childhood, but which I cannot name."

C. and I were hoping to log some time in the Mojave desert this year to work on a project, but our plans got scotched due to uncertain times, etc. Her brother-in-law has a cabin in the woods somewhere in Ohio near the Kentucky border, and so we headed there. We're grateful for the change of scenery. The cabin sits on eight acres of hemlock, beech, and tangled brambles. The brother-in-law showed us the property lines to make sure we don't get shot by the neighbors. They're enthusiastic members of the National Rifle Association, and they enjoy target practice from noon until dusk. The cabin smells like cedar. Beavers have chewed some of the logs. There's a fire pit. At night the sound of the insects is unholy.

There is no internet here. No cellphone reception either. Picking up a signal requires either a ten-minute hike up a thorny ravine that leaves you in the sight-lines of the armed neighbors—or a twenty-minute drive to the nearest town. (I prefer to drive.) It's good for me, this rare opportunity to short-circuit my compulsive scrolling and refreshing. Each night I head into town for some internet so I can do any necessary emailing and file-sending, then I return to the cabin to work without the distraction of the day's two-minute hates. But there's still a low-level thrum in my nerves, the worry that I'm missing being negligent and failing to bear witness.

The days feel much longer than they did before. Perhaps it's the intentional and partitioned use of the internet. Maybe it's the gunfire next door.

I enjoy my late-night drives to pick up a signal. Mist rises from the fields, and my headlights catch the shining eyes of deer. Along the town's empty Main Street, the faces of men and women who've served in the military hang from the lampposts. The doctor's office has a sign that says, "Doctors can cure, but only Jesus can heal."

Sometimes I idle in the vast parking lot of a strip mall. It's a wild scene after hours. Teenagers drag race from the shuttered Chinese buffet to the Lawn & Garden side of the Walmart, their cars tricked out with neon and earsplitting engines. An ancient man pushes a shopping car filled with metal scrap and hollers about demons. A few middle-aged guys toss a football while others cheer from the bed of a pickup. Beneath the sodium lights, it looks like a futuristic sport.

I've dragged a table into a spot beneath the eaves of the cabin, and there I sit each morning until noon, grinding through the eleventeenth draft of my novel. Headphones on, I cue up some slow-motion guitars and aim for one thousand words. Sometimes I become profoundly interested in the pattern of sunlight on the wall. I often consider giving up on writing altogether. The routine is always the same: I spend the first half-hour stewing in self-loathing and doubt before summoning the nerve to tinker with a sentence or idea. But soon after I start, I disappear into my little world of long-haul truckers, wanna-be prophets, and a nation haunted by a sound that might be the voice of God.

By now I should know the only way to outrun my bullshit is to keep writing.

If I go for a run after taking a week or two off, my body creaks and judders. Even worse, I'm bored out of my skull, checking my watch every two or three minutes and wondering if I should start smoking again. The body remembers slowly and forgets very quickly—a good lesson to remember. A few days pass without working on my book and my brains start panting and wheezing the next time I sit at my desk. Why are you making up stories? Let's do something else instead. The daily routine isn't poetic or even interesting but, for me at least, there will be no flash of insight or white-hot burst of motivation. God knows I've waited long enough for these things to show up.

  • Earth and Yellow Swans have soundtracked this August. Long sheets of drone and bristle.

  • AM Radio Scan. I stitched together a few recordings from a late-night drive and added some reverb and sludge. And somewhere between the discussion about alien tampering and the angel of death, you can hear my turn signal blinking while I idled at an empty intersection in the middle of America.

Crossing Interstate 77 somewhere between West Virginia and Ohio, I thought about the night I drove through this area four years ago when I took my father's ashes from New Orleans to Saginaw Bay. I listened to paranoid talk radio for hours that night, and I still remember the frantic voice of a late-night caller who said, "We can't get the blood out of our eyes fast enough to see what's coming next." This observation felt true during those turbulent weeks before the 2016 election. Now it feels like a mantra. Best we can do is whatever it takes to keep our vision clear.