My sister-in-law and her family went on a trip recently and asked us to care for her daughter’s bearded dragon.
This dragon, a green guy with brown eyes, is still a youth, about seven inches long from the nose to the tip of his tail, though in 18 months he’ll swell to the size of a tyrannosaurus-rex arm, one you can take out walking with a leash.
While he stayed with us, he lived in a big glass box on our buffet cabinet in the dining room. This changed our mealtimes slightly. Eating in the presence of a reptile makes you feel a little wild. You eat faster and too much. You eat like a beast, loosening your belt as you shed your humanity, showing off for the dragon.
I am Dan, decimater of breakfast. Subduer of lunch. I approach, and supper trembles.
I love teaching Introduction to Creative Writing. It’s a wonderful triathlon: We start with fiction then move on to poetry, and lastly we write stories from our lives. And I do my best to persuade students to abandon their hastily selected majors and join the Writing Program so they can help us uphold our time-honored tradition of disobeying our parents.
But this semester, something’s gone wrong.
I, a man who is more like Peter Pan than a man, have become the parent, and the students are my disobedient children.
How did this happen?
How is it possible that the lost boys turned into cynics, rolling their eyes at the great Pan himself, party-poopers only grudgingly joining their leader on fabulous adventures?
If only this was true. If only I was Pan and they were the lost boys. Then I would know exactly how to handle the situation.
I would fly the killjoy boys to the lagoon and hurl them to the mermaids who would drown them and eat them. Then I would write my own student evaluations:
“They never attended class. I never saw them. Please send more, better ones. Send ones who don’t hate happiness and magic.” — Pan
My house is haunted by ghosts who live outside on the lawn. What is the form they’ve chosen?
Snow drops, crocuses, glory of the snow, and purple flowers called blue bugles.
These are the echoes of flowers planted years and years ago by previous owners. They’re unruly echoes. They’ve long ago left their original garden beds and have wandered like sleepwalkers and bedded down everywhere.
Why are we so lucky? I wondered. Then I told my wife a theory: “It must be a septic leak. It’s us. We’re fertilizing the crap out of our lawn.”
This confirmed something I’ve always believed about myself: every last bit of me is art. Look at the flowers I paint with my waste!
I saw my mind as a magical tree, but I feared it wasn’t mighty enough. What if it’s only a bonsai? I wanted God to go underground, down to the roots and trim them, snip off their tapered decisions to stop reaching, encourage them to dig deeper into the Earth.
“But bonsais are so beautiful,” you say.
You’re not wrong. And I love you.
God’s pruning would make the root system vast. Imagine oceans of water sent up and up into the bonsai. It would have a choice to make. Either expand like a balloon, becoming a water bomb the size of EPCOT center, and explode, or grow to the height of a sequoia, a redwood, and freakishly beyond, a tree so gigantic that the moon nests in its branches.
I was a sad teen. I hated my disloyal, unpredictable skin, and I feared God was about to tally up all my sinful thoughts and drop an old testament rock on my head. My miseries and fears got so bad, my mother bought me a book called Brain Lock. It’s about obsessive compulsive disorder. I loved that book. It was fascinating to read the stories of people enslaved by their loud brains.
One man’s mind suggested that he bring his coffeemaker to work with him in a bag. He did this so he could open the bag fifty times a day and see the coffeemaker in there, unplugged. Innocent. This was the only way he knew for sure the coffeemaker wasn’t at home, gleefully burning down his house.
One woman had to cover all her mirrors. Once she was face to face with herself, she couldn’t escape. It’s like her brain was a great code-breaker and there was a message hidden in the arrangement of her features. Her brain engaged in the puzzle and would not let her go. If cracking the code meant breaking her, it would happily do so.
One man would wake up in the middle of the night if he heard emergency-vehicle sirens. He would rush to his car and chase the sound. If it led him to a car accident, he would wait for the emergency crew to clean up the scene, wait for everyone to leave, and then he would gather the cleaning supplies always ready in his trunk, and scrub the pavement. He feared battery acid. His mind had convinced him that if the acid was left alone, allowed to run into the Earth, it would find its way into his food, slip into his milk and juice containers, and rain from the little storm cloud floating over his head.
I was thrilled. I had found my tribe. These were my people, and they remain my people.
I have this problem with my fly. The zipper on my pants. I’m terrified that one day it’s going to be wide open while I’m standing in front of the classroom. I check my fly ten to fifty-seven times on the way to every class.
Occasionally, my mind asks me to stop walking, lean down, pull the little zipper flap to the side, and stare at the closed zipper, and think something like, “You are closed. You are closed for business.”
This has produced another fear: the fear of getting fired for reaching for my crotch ten to fifty-seven times on the way to class, reaching for it, fiddling with the tag, trying to zip it up more (I would zip it up over my head if I could), and also getting fired for leaning down and whispering to my crotch, “You are closed for business.”
I was in a small Christian gang at my elementary school. At first glance, you might not have believed we were gang members, but if you looked closely at the twinkle in our eyes, you would have read the message, “We can die at any time. Jesus will catch us. How about you? Do you know who’s catching you?”
That’s a lot to read in a set of eyes. But you could, because we were looking at you for a very long time, staring, willing your salvation. We stared because Christian culture never taught us the rules of eye-contact, the laws of social interaction. We were above the law, people united by our defiance of death, and our sense that there isn’t time for social niceties, not when you’re in the game of saving souls.
Now do you believe we were a gang? Of course you do. Only people in a gang would be tough enough to shout with their eyes at strangers, saying, “Do you know where you’re going when you die?”
We were training to ask this question with our mouths too, and in the mean time, we were wearing jean jackets and owning off brand Trapper Keepers like bad asses. We didn’t need brand names. Our names were branded in the Book of Life.
We quietly celebrated the fact that our true hearts were buried in the beyond: God’s country. It made us light on our feet. The school and playground could fall away beneath us, collapsing in atomic fire, and we would simply lift off as gently as kids on cables in a swanky Peter Pan production. Then the winds of the world’s burning would sail us all the way to Jesus’s Neverland.
Saturday 4:21 PM—“Current mask breath: MANURE. I mean it. What the hell?”
Why do I send my sister breath updates? Like soldiers on the battlefield writing poetry for the first time, I do it because I have to. Because in times of great stress, our communication changes. We reach for our roots. We sniff our roots, then we write home.
But communicating with my sister during a pandemic is something she and I have been training for. By this I mean there’s always been a cloud over us. This cloud was full of a god, and this god was my brother.
My brother and I are so close in age we’re like distant twins. In the womb, I felt his lingering presence. This is not my amniotic fluid, said fetal-me. It’s hand-me-down. I want my own. I kicked the womb wall in my rage.
I worked on a hay farm in high school. My boss, I’ll call him Adam, was a towering man from out west, a man whose silence about the west gave you the impression that he didn’t just leave it, he fled.
You could find his old life lying quietly in one of his farm buildings. There, you discovered woodworking tools, ornately-carved bedposts and cabinet doors, and the arms and legs of antique tables and chairs. That had been his business: old and beautiful furniture. But something about the way he ran this business forced him to get himself thousands of miles away from it.
I would later learn that Adam could practice bad business in the east as well as the west. Last I heard, he was being hunted by about twenty farmers. He owed them money. I imagine them sending him a haybale with a dead fish inside. The message is clear: “Pay up or you will be baled.”
Farmer Adam could have avoided all this trouble if he had paid more attention to the Bible:
In my high school gym class, they taught us how to dance. This was bad of them, having gym. Why is there gym?
If you immediately have an answer for this, you’re part of the problem.
I hated changing in the locker room. Before high school, I’d heard reports that they forced students to shower after gym. My fear lingered. I kept expecting the gym teacher to step into the room or unfold himself out of a locker and say, “Strip.” Those who remained clothed would be undressed violently by the nude then dragged into the communal shower.
Only one good thing happened in the locker room. I saw my first real fight.
Brian Shaw, an old friend, battled against a wild kid, a youth freshly shucked from the deep woods. We had many wild woods kids at my high school. They had pine sap for blood, animal eyes in their heads, and they spoke only one language: heavy metal.
Erskine Academy was a Roman outpost, a hub of order surrounded by several barbarian kingdoms. Forest Kingdoms of Maine: Chelsea, China, Jefferson, Palermo, Somerville, Vassalboro, Whitefield, and Windsor.
I had been collected from the sticks of Palermo. Yes, I was of the woods, but not as much as many of the children raked out of the deeper forests.
Some of these kids were gigantic men. Bearded. Driving real trucks on real roads since they were thirteen. When they marched the halls in their steel-toed boots of war, they marched in straight lines down the dead center like Moses, like crows, and their eyes were on something far away that none one else could see. But I know what they saw. They saw the woods waiting for them on the other side of high school, their wolf parents ready to coronate them with crowns of knives and bones.
At the landscaping company where I worked for two summers, they called me “Danimal.” They gave me this name because I didn’t landscape. I attacked.
I filled my wheelbarrows so full of earth, sand, and rock that the handles creaked and groaned. It took all my might to wheel the barrow without tipping it over. A coworker once asked, “Why do you do that?”
And I, like a wild Danimal, said, “I don’t know.” But what I meant was, Why does the bear roar? Why does the tiger also roar? Why does the lion’s hair look effortlessly amazing?
What choice do we have?
Another time, my boss needed someone to dig under his house to make room for a new foundation. That’s a good reason to dig, but I didn’t care about the reason. All I knew was my boss had selected me, and digging is one of my favorite things. The darkness and quiet of the underground calm me down like my dentist’s weighted blanket, and in the freedom of that soothing calm, I go insane.
Beneath that house, I battled the Earth with pickaxe and spade, working by the light of bare bulbs, little golden moons. I howled at them. I became Stephen King’s gunslinger, sort of. I was the dirt-slinger:
“I do not dig with my shovel; he who digs with his shovel has forgotten the face of his father. I dig with my heart.”