Clusters of Butterflies
Torrents of Bats
Clear Pretty Blue Skies
Swarming of Gnats
Warm Coffee Lids
Friends who’ve forgiven me
Friends who’ve betrayed
Friends who’ve abandoned me
Friends who have stayed
Women who swing their hips
Women who don’t
Women who’ll lay with me
Women who won’t
Besties and spouses
Living in tenements
Dreaming of houses
The Creak of Old Windmills
The Flower that Wilts
The Strength of my Youth fades
The Jousting Lance Tilts
The Windmills keep turning
I don’t quite know how
I fought them all Bravely
© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
December 29th, 2014
Tilting at the Windmills of My Mind
All rights reserved
Dedicated to the indomitable spirit in all of us.
In the halls of her school, Lisa heard the comments.
“Such a promising career ahead…”
“Never dance again…”
“…a tragedy…” “…a shame…”
“Never walk again …” “…dancing is finished…”
Her face would heat, and she’d roll the chair a little faster, enduring the day, the comments sown like bitter seeds in her heart. Time was against her; her muscles hadn’t failed yet, but they were on the way.
She sighed, but today, she managed not to cry.
Her father loaded her like a cargo of five gallon drums into the back of the van after school, and took her home.
She did her homework before dinner since there wasn’t much.
Her parents were watching television when she rolled the chair in front of them.
“Lisa? What is it, honey?” her mother said.
“Take me there.”
“Honey, please. We’ve been over this. The doctors…”
“Yes, I know, Dad. The doctors, it’s always the doctors said…”
“Lisa, be realistic!”
“No!” She slammed her fists on the arms of her wheelchair, and her parents jumped. She got her breathing under control, kept her eyes averted to blink back the tears that threatened; if she cried now, it would be over.
She looked up at them in after a moment, her eyes clear, her gaze steady.
“No. Take me there.”
Huffing in frustration, but without another word, her father clicked off the tv and loaded her into the van. Her mother rode shotgun, and they rode in silence.
The dance class stopped when Lisa came to the door.
“Hello, Mrs. Castro.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I came to start over.”
“Lisa, honey, I can’t…”
“We told her, Mrs. Castro,” her mother said. “We told her what the doctors said, but she insisted.”
Mrs. Castro sighed. “Let her come to grips with it. It’s the only way they’ll stop sometimes. I’ve seen it before.”
Lisa rolled the chair past Mrs. Castro.
The other girls watched in stunned silence.
Stopping before the mirror, Lisa took a good long look at herself, taking stock of what she was about to do, and whether or not it was worth it.
And she turned the chair sideways, placed her feet on the floor and placed her hands on the barre, her breathing deep.
The other girls watched at first, as her arms began to shake, her knuckles tighten and slip; she wiped her hands on her useless knees, and got another grip, and pulled again.
And little by bit, Lisa began to pull herself up, trembling, shaking, but slowly rising.
“Lisa, don’t do this,” her mother said, her hands over her chest.
“Lisa, stop!” her father said.
She bit her lip as the tears stung again, and one escaped, and she rose a little higher.
With her next pull, she gave a small cry of pain, and one of the girls broke from the circle and got behind her, and put her arm around Lisa’s middle, supporting her, her knees and thighs aligned with Lisa’s own, which were almost like a marionette’s, and she pushed the chair a little distance away.Lisa went higher, her breath hissing between her teeth. The girl behind her was straining with the weight, and she didn’t want to fall backward.
Another one joined her, and stooped to put Lisa’s hands on her shoulders as she supported Lisa’s arms.
Lisa went higher, even as the pain ripped through her and she cried out again.
Two more joined and supported the two girls who were holding Lisa.
She went up a little more.
And another came, and another, and then the rest, reforming the semi-circle that had been around Mrs. Castro, and they began to call out.
“Do it, Lisa!”
“Come on, girl!”
“Kick, Lisa! Higher!”
“You call that a pirouette?”
“If you can’t hack it, pack it!”
“Get that leg up!”
“Balance, keep your balance!”
“Spin faster, stupid!” They all laughed a little louder at that, and Lisa strained with the effort.
And kept rising.
The girls began to cry through their smiles as Lisa struggled, inch by inch, her own cries lost in their laughter and shouts and cheers of love that sounded like reprimands they’d all heard and said, standing together back then as vulnerable and fearful children, standing together now as vulnerable, fearful young women with confidence and hope.
And today, centered on their broken, fallen angel, they anointed her with all they had, and it filled the studio like morning vespers.
And when Lisa finally stood, leaning on their arms and shoulders, wracking, drenched, and beautifully terrible, still shaking, crying and trembling as they embraced each other in bittersweet victory, it was for different reasons.
© Alfred W. Smith, Jr.2014
All rights reserved
Daylight was just breaking, but already Willie was at the bus stop across the street from the house.
He was nervous, excited and scared, dreading where they’d send him. It wasn’t that he was a coward, but he had his reasons. His uniform was starched and crisp and clean, except for the dust that stirred around the cuffs and over the insteps of his glossy black shoes.
There was a single light on in the house, and the faint sound of a gospel choir building carried on the cool early morning air. Through the window he could see a woman was at the stove, and she hummed along in time with the gospel choir, a good voice, steady and clear. With the sound of the choir came the smell of bacon and coffee, faint at that distance, but there.
A slender brown hand with a spatula deftly flipped a flapjack in the air. Putting the flapjacks in the oven to keep warm while the bacon browned, she poured herself some coffee from the percolator and disappeared from view. From what he could see, no one else seemed to be up, or perhaps no one else was there; she’d kept to herself since her husband died not too long ago.
The door opened, then the screen door squeaked, and the woman stepped out onto the porch into the coolness, and took a deep breath, running her free hand through her hair, the steam from the coffee cup rising like morning vespers. She still had her robe on. It was old and worn, like a well used Bible, and almost as sacred. Sipping coffee, she looked down the road awhile at first, and Willie said, “Good morning, Darlene.”
She jumped and gave a little cry, turned, and smiled at him. “Good morning, Willie. Didn’t see you there! Where you goin?” Then she saw the uniform, tinged with blue in the predawn light.
“Oh,” was all she said. She felt flashes of anger and sadness, but managed, somehow, to keep from saying more.
Willie’s green cap was in his hand, and he was twisting it. “Sorry ‘bout that, Darlene, didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Come on over here and get yourself something to eat; the bus ain’t due yet.”
“Don’t wanna be no trouble.” She smiled.
“I didn’t ask you to be no trouble, I told you to come get something to eat.”
“You sure?”She put her hands on her hips. “Willie, my bacon’s almost done. When this door is closed, it’s closed.”
Willie came over, the fine dust on the road made little coronas around his feet, as if he were a prophet traversing the dunes. Darlene went in ahead of him.
“Go on and sit down,” she told him. Willie sat and scooted his chair up to the table as she put a steaming plate in front of him, took out some syrup and butter, and poured his coffee and added a small glass of apple cider. Then she served herself; he got up to hold her chair, and sat back down.
Holding hands across the table, together they said grace.
Don’t see why I got to go,” he said. “They treat us like dirt here, and want us to go help somebody else from being treated like dirt. Don’t make no sense.”
Darlene sat back and sighed.“No, it don’t.”
“They even separate us there; don’t want us next to them on the way over, and don’t care if we…”
He wasn’t looking at her. It seemed like he wanted to cry but didn’t dare. Seemed like he wanted to bolt and run down the road and never look back, but he couldn’t.
“Willie.” Something in the way she said his name got his attention. She took his hand. “It don’t matter what they do, you got to come back alive, whatever it takes. Don’t you let them break you, hear? You got to come back sane and whole. You got that baby coming, and it’s depending on daddy, right now, to come back.”
Darlene’s father was nervous that morning, his hands fidgeting with his hat, and her mother kept adjusting things on him, putting off his leaving as long as possible, as he stood there and let her put it off. Her hands were busy adjusting from the inside out until there was nothing more: his tie his shirt collar, his jacket collar, the cuffs of his sleeves, the hem of his pants, hands brushing, tugging, tucking, when all she wanted to do was grab him and never let him go to that meeting about the coming protests.
Out of things to do, she looked at her husband, tears in her eyes, untouched by either of them, until he reached out and pulled her close, and looked down at the upturned faces of his little girls, not comprehending, but feeling the anxious charge in the air between their parents, his own eyes filling, his wife’s tears wetting his jacket, her lips by his ear.
“ I don’t care ‘bout what you got to do out there, David, to make things better for everybody else, you just make sure you come home. These girls need their daddy, and I need my husband, and I know you scared, but you got to come back, and that’s all there is to it.
“You hear me, David?”
“You hear me, Willie?” Willie nodded and got his breathing back under control. They finished breakfast in silence, though neither of them felt much like eating now; it was just sin to waste food. Darlene cleared the table, and Willie stood up; he held the door for her as they went outside, and saw the puff of dust down the road from the bus tires.
“Guess it’s time.”
“Let’s pray.”She took his hand again. They prayed for protection, his safe return, strength for Clara, and health for his new baby, in Jesus’ Name, amen.
The bus hissed to a stop.
“You comin, boy?”
“Say goodbye, then.”
Willie and Darlene embraced.
“I’m scared, Darlene.”
“I know,” she said against his ear, “I know that, Willie. And so is Clara, and so is your baby. You’ll probably be scared every day you spend over there.” Stepping out of his arms, her eyes searched his. “But you got to come back,” her eyes welled up, “and that’s all there is to it.”
He swallowed, nodded, wiped his own tears away with his mangled green cap. “Thank you for breakfast,” he said, though it wasn’t all he meant.
A cantankerous horn shattered the morning quiet.
“Ain’t got all day, boy!”
“Weren’t no ‘trouble’,” she let her tears fall, and smiled through them, and Willie walked down the steps, over the road, into the bus. Finding an empty seat by the window, he looked out at her, and she kept the smile she didn’t feel on her face, and waved as the bus took him to his destiny.
And as the birds began to sing, all that remained of Willie were his footprints leading to and from her door, and the dust from the tires settling back down, and the paling light of the morning sun breaking over the horizon, as Darlene wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her robe, and went back inside, humming low with the radio choir.
Since I’ve moved to Jersey, I’ve had trouble finding a quiet place to write. It’s difficult because if you can’t work at home, or just want to be outside in the fresh air, unfortunately, the world is a public place, and most people aren’t considerate of the fact that you need to concentrate in order to keep your train of thought.
These are people such as: smokers ( keep reading: not judging you, just that I’m outside for fresh air; I fully realize the irony of that statement living in NJ, but it’s a relative thing), car radios, chatter, *teenage girls (*see chatter on crack), running children…. you get the point.
There are days you have the ability to zone, and days that you don’t; these days I’m finding it increasingly difficult to zone.
We all know by now, even if we’re remotely serious about it, that writing is in fact a discipline, and as in any discipline, you need to be organized, to concentrate, to focus, to think, and to adapt, if necessary; that requires, to a large degree, two ingredients: the first is being alone, the second is being quiet.
That’s not comfortable for a lot of people, and I understand. Their car radios are on from the time they get in it to the time they get out, either with music or some other media like books or language learning. They come home and immediately turn on the tv, or come home and jump on all the social media they didn’t get to at work. I’ve never known anyone who said they’ve come home after a hard day and started a book, either reading or writing one (but I know you’re out there).
Then there are the coffee shop writers, whose ranks I’ve joined, and those who think coffee shop writers are showing off. Maybe some are, and maybe the whole movement even started out that way. But here’s the thing: How much you wanna bet that the cafe’ where J. K. Rowling wrote her first Potter novel is cashing in on that reputation?
How many little holes-in-the-wall places in Spain, France, and Italy claimed Hemingway? You get the point.
I felt self-conscious the first time I set up my laptop in a corner table at my local Borders; it wasn’t crowded, and no one gave me a knowing smirk of derision. Really, no one cared; it’s just that I was aware of the perception. Then some college girls came in and set up shop next to me, and I got distracted, and not much writing got done. If I had been more disciplined, Borders could’ve cashed in on my reputation and saved their business…Isn’t it pretty to think so?
So what’s my point? Finding somewhere quiet to write is essential, but it’s not always possible, so ….
Recognize that discipline doesn’t mean inflexibility; some days, I can work at home, other days, it’s my local coffee shop, and sometimes, it’s the library, and if the weather’s really nice, it’s outside in the park, because it’s the writing that’s the discipline, not the location.
And there are days you’re not going to be able to write X hours a day, even if you told yourself that’s what you would do, because there are days life will crash through the window, kick down the door, and grab you by the throat, and there are days you just won’t feel like it. Try to push it, and you’re just going to slog needlessly through a lot of mud.
Don’t do that to your writing, and more importantly, to yourself.
It’s okay. It evens out; the desire is there, and one or two off days is not going to quench it. When you get back to it the way it works for you for that day, you’ll be that much more productive. Go with the flow, just don’t float away.
Now go get that second cup of joe, and get back to work.
I called this blog Beyond Panic, which is not a cheerful name, and may not be something that on the surface people would want to read; I understand that, but such a title is not chosen at random, nor with the intent of discouraging people with a woe-is-me story. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Why am I beyond panic?
The story is long and messy, but not boring. Suffice it to say that Murphy’s Law as applied to my life in PA was Murphy’s Law squared, and sometimes cubed, but it taught me some things about myself that I would not have known otherwise: I’m tougher than I ever thought I could be. I can show emotions. When people change, and especially when they betray you, they grow cold to justify their actions. Blood does not equal family. Death is closer than we know, but so is happiness.
And more often than not, things even out with time, just by necessity if nothing else. The ups, you see, do in fact, follow the downs.
Now here in my mid-50’s, having lost everything and having to start over, I’ve never felt more free. Things are a hindrance, and when you have the wrong people added to the wrong things, you’re not just running in place, not getting anywhere, you are sprinting in oil: You fall, and slip backward, and slide forward, your arms are windmilling, and you’re out of control.
THAT is what my life in PA was like. I don’t know why; I tried everything I knew, worked jobs where everyone involved KNEW I was out of my calling, but I had mouths to feed. I can’t tell you how many times I heard the question I so often asked myself: “What are you doing here?”
Don’t get me wrong, PA was a pretty state: fresh air, open space, lots of festivals, good food, good beers, and for the most part, good people. (that’s another post). My children thrived, and grew big and strong, the way kids should grow. The first five years were wonderful: family vacations, learning to fish, summer camps, bike trips, pictures, picnics, swim lessons, music lessons, dance lessons, garage bands, and of course, sports (I was even a T-ball coach; that was an experience!) and then a crucial decision was made on a career choice my wife had to make; the stakes were high, and it was a gamble, and we lost, and then the downward spiral began, and for me, at least, it never stopped until I left. We never really fully recovered, at least not together.
I had to go back to work, but I had no idea what PA had in store. There was no internet then to job search; I knew no one who could really help, or would if they could, and we were getting dangerously close to losing all we had built, and then, one day, we did. I went into the temp service circus because it was the fastest way to find a job without applying. I tried my hardest.
It was years of wasted effort: dead-end jobs, minimum wage service jobs, lost music equipment, lost apartments, broken cars, ruined credit, and finally, never being able to get ahead anymore, which nailed the marriage coffin shut.
Getting ahead of myself:
So into the wringer I go, and… Wrong color (yes, they actually said that), overqualified (have a college degree: ‘you’re not going to stay.’ they were probably right), too slow (we need at least 300 of these an hour) incapable of learning (my trainer was flirting with the girls, and I tried to learn on my own, since they didn’t get me a new one when I asked) sleeping on the job (I was working two full time ones with an hour break in between; how I didn’t kill myself or someone else driving back and forth remains a mystery; I consider that divine interference), all of them stamped on my forehead before I was shown the door. With the first one, I never even got in.
I was not good at office politics either. I never seemed to genuflect fast enough. (That would fall under ‘too slow,’ in more ways than one). See, my resources were in my head, not my hands. I was not an electronics assembler, machine operator, fork lift driver, janitor, line worker, shipping packer, truck loader, messenger, call center salesman, etc.
I was a teacher. (say it with me: Those who can’t DO… Oh, yeah? Why don’t you teach a new poetry unit to this eighth grade class two weeks into May, buddy… can you DO that?)
Well, I’ll share with you what I learned when people hear about what you ‘was.’ ‘WAS’ is the echo of fading glory.
“Who cares? Why all this? Why didn’t you just become a teacher again?” In a word, favoritism, nepotism, sexism (a new male principal who wanted all female teachers), ageism (he wanted his fresh out of college) and politics, and in one instance, PTA involvement. Pick a word. Any word, and one or more of them will probably apply as well. In short, the reasons had nothing to do with being qualified. My reviews in NY had been good, and in my last year, it had been raised to exceptional.
Stay with me.
As the place developed, and the farmland disappeared, new people with young families began to move in, and none of them worked in PA. They kept their jobs in NY and NJ and put up with the hell of commuting because there was simply no money to be made in PA that would allow them to support their family.
I was circling the drain financially, spiritually, emotionally, maritally, and fill-in-the-ly, when this company threw me a lifeline, and I grabbed it, and began, for the umpteenth time, to pull myself back to shore. When the line was cut again in PA by the company we were contracted to, I looked around for another one to grab.
“Do you want to look at the severance package?” (I wasn’t on the job a year, and it was based on time with the company. I might’ve gotten a Happy Meal out of it).
“No, I don’t. I want to work.”
“We have something in New Jersey.”
“It’s kinda far.”
They told me.
“Go check it out for a couple of days, and if you want to take the severance we’ll go over it with you.” I went out the first day; the second day I took the job. I was so used to doing what was necessary, and I had lost so much that there was literally nothing holding me in PA anymore. I jettisoned stuff, got out of the lease, and came to Jersey.
So I left, and now I’m here, and now that i have the time, the discipline, and the equipment, I’m pursuing a lifelong dream: to become a published author, and have people spend time with my imagination, and see the images I see in their own way, and relate to my characters, fantasy though they may be, because every fantasy is anchored in some way to a reality.
I’d like them to find that reality in one of my works, as I’ve found some of mine in the works of others: like when the hero is on the verge of defeat, and can’t lift the sword one more time…, but he digs, and it’s slow and painful and everything in him wants to scream: yeah, I’ve been there. Our swords might be different, but that feeling…yeah, I know it now. Or when the woman he’s with says just the right thing at the right time, and he gets that charge…yeah, been there. Or better yet, when he can’t go on, and the giant’s in front of him, and the point of a blade pops out of the giant’s big gut, and he falls, and the hero’s girl is standing back there, looking like Halloween on a bad hair day? Man, are you kidding me? You better go to Jared…and if he’s not there, send out a search party.
Pretentious? Self-aggrandizing? Delusional? I don’t know. I hope one day you’ll read my work and see what you experience…
So, I’m beyond panic because I know this is a stop, not a destination. I no longer feel like I’m being blocked, but incubated. I feel like that Eagles tune where the line says: “So much has happened, that nothing has changed.” In many ways it’s true, but in one very real way it’s not: I’ve changed, and I have the crucible of PA to thank for it.
So much has happened, that nothing happens to me now that I cannot deal with, literally, on every level. If I can’t accomplish it, it’s because I’m the one who gave up, and if PA taught me anything, it was to NEVER give up.
I’ve told people the long, messy, not-boring story, and the usual response is: “Wow. You should write a book about your experiences there.” I don’t know. I’d like to leave it there in the dust, where it properly belongs; time is growing short, and I have other things I want to say.
But if I ever do, this would (will?) definitely be the title.
Hey, thanks for taking the time.