Too complex for words, we are every casual and causal link that has built to this moment, from Adam’s dust to the steel and rubber that transports us into one another’s lives and pulls us apart.
All of human history at our fingertips and we’re stuck on the last page, reading over and over again as madmen and mad women tear it all down, to start over again or to rebuild, but not to make a better world for our children; for we are childless, and we are children.
I could cant plaintive aspirations for the future and the utopian landscapes of post-crisis self-realization, cry that you are an end in and of itself, the omega. But you don’t listen, and I’m not speaking; somehow, the silence gets filled up all the same.
We are our shared perspective, from where we see the world and agree, that yes, from up here, it does look to be burning. Or perhaps it’s just the stifling, unifying cigarette plumes of eight billion cave dwellers who have agreed that the world has little time left, so why not just light one up and wait it out. If the world doesn’t end, well, we will anyway.
We will always have our history.
Preserved in museums and memories that come back to us when the night’s libations have let us down, our history is the story of a species gradually, painfully, resiliently gaining consciousness and then, upon achieving this feat of evolution, imbibing every painkiller until we are no longer conscious.
We are our ancestors.
They cower, afraid to look up.
I tried to be a stone wall in the nuclear holocaust predicted by you, but every shadow that burned into me was just another reminder of all the ways that I am, too, human, too human, and made of skin that ripples and stains like a leaf of paper. On it, written the words you have already acknowledged as the pleas of a coward. I am shaken.
I’m stuck between wanting to tell you that you are a towering example of strength and a sharpened shard of beauty, but I know the words only get lost from my mouth to your ears; impossible to cross the divide that separates us now that you have heard it all.
I talk about history.
You talk about dying.
We both get it.
I don’t get what I’m doing here, each passing moment stretching out to eternity and then it’s tomorrow and nothing has changed; I’m still failing at everything I try to do. I could see the whole world from down here; I don’t, though.
I was sitting in your living room when I received the note; a sky so full of clouds that I thought it must be night. It was the end of a day.
Another history brought short.
Another shadow on my wall.
History is what we label that which we cannot change; this is another part of our history, even if it isn’t ours.
I go on. You go on. She go on. We go on.
And then you’re gone and I go alone.
It used to be that if “love” were spoke with enough hope, with all the power of Hannibal’s elephants and all the radiance of Chernobyl and all the precision of Oswald’s bullet, any broken heart could be mended, no matter how many times it had been shattered.
That is now a part of history, too.
So what if there’s nothing to be done? So what if our history is a collection of stolen artifacts and carefully curated facts to placate our brittle consciences? If our time is short, why shouldn’t our memories be, also?
I want this to be all okay; you, me, her/him, all with the collective sigh of our history.
It isn’t, though.
It is rotten, I know.
It isn’t true.
It only trickles through.
We are guilty
of faux civility
weak and shallow
nothing more than a show.
This is our legacy.
This is our destiny.
This is our history.
I don’t control what I’m saying. I think in couplets when I’m away from you and you are acting as though nothing has changed. Everything’s changed. You dismissed my lips, unkissed.
We have history.
You have history. It’s not easy to forget, it’s not easy to forgive, and when the cruel gray crows scatter your smile across a desolate field, it’s not easy to let go.
I am not a historian, I cannot be that detached.
Nor am I merely a supplicating audience member, waiting to applaud, steady with my tears, happy to concede defeat to the playwright. I write, too, and I don’t care if they are Shakespeare’s Histories, I make up my own endings.
You will loathe this, every word.
You will loathe me, too, and find my incessant presence to be a bother. This is already of history.
Yet, here I am, in attendance.
I bought the ticket, I took my seat, I put the world on silence for you.
So sing your song, recite your monologue, hit your mark, and kill the critics in the crowd who will insist that you’re not right for the part. The part is right for you.
I should’ve said that.
I didn’t say anything. You wept like Ophelia’s willow, threatening to drown all of Europe, but it only rains in London these days; the skies are gray, sure, but also close enough to touch. We didn’t touch. We stayed dry, we stayed indoors.
And then, that was it.
I’ve returned to this place I’m calling home now.
See the world, learn its histories, trace the rivers diverted by time and escape to the cities built on bones. Every street, every window, all of the tastes and smells, they lambast us with the history we think is behind us. Paint the walls, if you must, climb the scaffolding; it will all be history soon enough. History always wins.
It’s been a busy couple of months for me. In addition to my two day jobs, I’ve been working weekends as a server and teaching an ESL class one night a week, all while trying to write (rare), study Spanish (rarer), and have a social life (so rare, it’s still mooing).
Of all those demands on my time, I’m finding teaching the most rewarding. For about three hours every Monday night, I volunteer at El Centro de Educación de Trabajadoresin Hell’s Kitchen, an organization that provides a variety of services to help immigrants and those whose first language isn’t English. They provide a good community service, a necessary service, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to play a small part in it – as well as a little sad that next week will be the end of the quarter.
Partnered with a co-teacher, I help adult learners with first level English, teaching essential grammar and vocabulary. The students are at varying skill levels, and almost every week we’ve had a new student arrive, so there’s a lot of on-the-fly adaptation and rejiggering of lesson plans.
Every Monday morning, I leave my apartment at 8 to work a full 9-5 (5:30, really) and then immediately take the train a couple stops north to start teaching just after 6. The class ends at 9 and then I have roughly an hour ride home back to my apartment in Crown Heights. Then another six straight days of work. Sunday nights, I go to sleep exhausted just by the thought of the next day.
The strange thing – or not so strange, based on the admissions of my fellow volunteers – is that by the time class has started, I’m re-energized, excited to engage with the students, to hear about their weeks and learn more about them. They come from Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico, Iran, and other locales. Every week we talk about what life is like in their home countries, what they enjoy about New York, and what differences they experience in American culture. These are the conversations I live for.
When it’s my week to lead the lesson, there’s always a wee nervous stirring in my stomach, the weight of responsibility, a sense that there’s more at stake than whether a cheeseburger comes out at the right temperature. The glimmer of excitement in someone’s eye when they understand something that only minutes before they had not is the ultimate gratuity.
I’m sad that I won’t get a second chance to work with El Centro or my co-teachers. I hope to someday return to a similar type of program, either abroad or when (if) I return to the United States. Until then, I’m grateful for the opportunity. I don’t yet think of myself as a teacher, not really, but this was an important stop on that journey.
A Puzzle with No Solution
Ms. Drake turned out to be a surprisingly pivotal person in my life’s direction. I say surprising because, when she was my sixth grade teacher, I always found her teaching style to be a bit juvenile. She decorated her classroom with color paper cutouts that looked more appropriate for kindergarteners. We also had a midday break where she would read different books to us, some of them well below my reading level. I was mostly bored in her class.
Hell, I’m providing her the pseudonym of “Ms. Drake” not to protect her identity but because I genuinely don’t remember it. She only lasted at the school one year.
And yet, Ms. Drake, my Ms. Frizzle-esque sixth grade teacher absolutely changed the course of my life.
Up until sixth grade, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said a “mathematician.” I didn’t really have a concept of what that meant or how exactly doing math could manifest as a career. I just knew that I liked math problems, any math problems.
When I was still in single digits, I used to borrow my sister, Debra’s, algebra textbook and solve problems from her homework. I enjoyed all math, but algebra appealed to me the most because each problem was like a little puzzle, and boy, I loved puzzles. One summer, I took a school math book home with me to do homework so that I could advance the next year. By the time I was in sixth grade, I had leapt ahead in my math course to be in the same class as my older brother, Daniel. He loved that.
So, every day, usually coinciding with Ms. Drake’s reading period, I and another student, a much brighter boy than me named Juno, would leave our sixth grade classroom and go upstairs to join the upper level math class (our school was a private Christian institution that housed K-9 grades all in one yellow, metal barn-shaped building).
I took great pride in my math proficiency, and was more than a little bit of a shithead about it with my older siblings. But since I was a mortally shy and uneasy kid, it’s all I had; it was my entire identity, other than being the youngest boy from a messed up family – which I also took a weird kind of pride in.
Having that one thing to hang my hat on was very important because sixth grade was also the year puberty body slammed my groin like a Republican congressman and I discovered the most magnificent of life’s horrors: falling in love.
Her name was Laura. She wasn’t the first girl I’d had a crush on. That was Melanie in kindergarten, and there’d been others. But Laura was the first girl for whom seeing her enter the room made me feel like I was dying and being born at the same time. My crush on her is probably the reason I can’t remember Ms. Drake’s real name or most other things going on in my life from sixth grade through much of junior high: she outshone everything else.
As a chunky 11-year-old, I was not a smooth talker, and I was not cute, at least not to sixth grade girls. I was confident that Laura – and every other girl for that matter – was in love with my best friend at the time, Aaron, an athletic, naturally popular kid. That’s how I envisioned him; I’m sure his memory is far less charitable, as no one remembers their pubescent years fondly.
I went through that entire year in complete devastation, certain that I was invisible to Laura, though I know for sure that she actually did notice me: I was the jerk who made up some stupid, rude nickname for her. That’s right, I was the cliché, the boy who didn’t know how to talk to his crush so he insulted her instead. This was the beginning of a phase where, when I couldn’t think of anything funny or witty to say, I would just be mean. I expect that phase to end any day now.
There I was, in love with this incomparable beauty (there are few comparison points for an 11-year-old, Christian boy), and completely unable to break through the barrier between us. I’d met the unsolvable puzzle.
This is where Ms. Drake comes in.
In addition to the reading period, Ms. Drake would also set aside a portion of the day for us to write in our journals. We could write whatever we wanted, and at the end, those who wished to could read what they’d written aloud to the class. I’d never really done any personal writing before, never had a diary or anything, but I took to this activity with gusto.
During one of these writing periods, I created my first character: Jack String, a bumbling idiot of a private eye who always managed to solve his cases by pure dumb luck. I’m not sure where the character came from, but like most everything else about me at that age, I’m sure I stole it from something I watched on TV.
Feeling confident one day, I volunteered to read my Jack String story to the class. That’s when it happened, the most perfect, most beautiful, purest life-sustaining moment of my paltry existence: I read the silly story and the class laughed. Nay, Laura laughed. That was it. Fuck math, I was a writer.
Writing was powerful, it was world changing. It made me funny. Once Jack String came to life on the page, he became all I wanted to write about, all I wanted to do. Entering his world offered the briefest of respites from my uncertain real life. (Years later, when I unearthed the original Jack String pages,I was shocked to find that these “short stories” where barely two paragraphs long.)
As I grew older, Jack String transformed into a more dour detective until I abandoned the character altogether. Though I had loved reading Encyclopedia Brown and other detective stories, it turned out I was lousy at manufacturing meaningful mysteries of my own. My fiction grew less plot heavy as I developed as a writer, more character based. The humor also changed, from pratfalls to sardonic quips that are really only funny to me. It turns out, my sixth grade self knew how to entertain an audience better than current me.
Laura and I became “friends” throughout high school but it was always a walled off kind of relationship. At 18, when I read my poetry for the first time in front of an older, rowdy audience at the Jazzhaus, I invited her as my guest, hoping not too subtly that my exquisite words would wow the audience and capture her heart.
We were the only under-agers allowed in (my brother, Steve, ran the show) and we drank Cherry Cokes together at our separate table. When it was my turn to read, I sheepishly worked my way through the narrow passages between the swiveling chairs and up onto the spotlighted stage.
There I stood, a stick figure child with the blondest of long blond hair, standing before a drunken crowd of adults. I cleared my throat in preparation of reading truly terrible poetry, but before I could get any words out, a disembodied voice from the darkness hollered, “Hey, Hanson!” The crowd exploded into hoots and guffaws. I turned beet red, and then grew redder. Apparently I could still get a laugh as a writer.
Dripping sweat, I managed to mumble out my angsty couplets before leaving the stage to polite clapping. I sat through the rest of the show, every few minutes looking at Laura with a twitchy smile, but there was nothing to be done, nothing to salvage. I’m pretty sure that was the last time I saw Laura.
For all that humiliation, for all the social anxiety, I have Ms. Drake to thank. But, sincerely so. Getting up on that stage and being roundly embarrassed was a necessary experience. I went up almost every week for the next three years, and eventually grew more comfortable performing before an audience, even if the poetry didn’t improve. It was facing that fear that led the groundwork for other major leaps that I would make in my life, particularly 10 Cities/10 Years.
It’s a strange influence that a teacher can have on a student’s life (and a preposterous society that doesn’t revere and support its teachers). If you were to ask me which teachers I’ve learned the most from or who I had the most admiration for, Ms. Drake wouldn’t be the first to pop into my head, and yet, truly, no other teacher sparked such a fundamental and lasting passion in me.
It’s crazy to think, if not for Ms. Drake, I might be an engineer instead of a writer.
For ten years, I was in a near constant state of financial insecurity as I scrambled to find work, pay off accrued debt, and then save money for my next move. There were precious few moments where I could just relax and feel confident in my situation; when those moments did come, they didn’t last long.
Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that as I committed myself to yet another move, my finances would go to hell. As of today, both of my part-time jobs are cutting back hours in the wake of revenue shortcomings, and with that, the razor-thin line I had been attempting to navigate on my way to making my savings goal for the next move has all but vanished.
With just over half a year until my planned departure, I’m looking for a third job just to pay my bills, forget savings.
On the one hand, this is nothing new. I have been here before, more times than I’d like. The constant calculations running through my head, the tightening budget, the imagined conversations with people who I will have to disappoint with broken plans; this is all so routine by now as to almost be laughable. You always stress out, I hear a voice in my head saying, and then it always works out.
Which, while technically true, doesn’t make it easier. Because things don’t just work out, I have to make them work.
Between looking for a third job, taking a TEFL class, working on my writing projects, and trying to have some semblance of a life, something will almost certainly have to give. For sure, if there’s anyone hoping I’d come for a visit before I left, you can pretty well scratch that. Come to New York City, if you like, we have things to do here, too.
And hell, I haven’t even moved to Spain yet; I’m still in the easy part.
This is the part of my life that I hate, honestly. It can feel like drowning. I don’t have a safety net or family to fall back on. I either figure it out, or… I don’t.
Of course, I must not hate it too much or I wouldn’t keep doing it to myself. Or perhaps I just hate the thought of not doing it too much to quit. Either way, once again, I’m locked into a path and the costs are adding up.
Every road in life has a toll; we choose which ones we’re willing to pay. I could have chosen a different one.
There’s a version of my life where I’m not 33 and uncertain about next month’s rent. There’s a version of my life where I’m thinking about taking my girlfriend (or, hm, wife?) out for a Valentine’s Day dinner tonight. There is some version of me in one of the multiverses where I haven’t thought about money for a decade because I make so much of it.
I’ll never meet those versions. The only life I will ever know is the one in which I sacrificed money, stability, career, relationships, and health in the pursuit of a dream. In this universe, I’m doing it again. I suppose it goes without saying that I’ve sacrificed mental health for this, too.
I don’t know how this trip ends. In the long term: Alone and in the dark, just like everyone else. But the path I’m on – this road that keeps winding and threatens to lead me off a cliff – doesn’t have mile markers or destination signs. I can’t look around and say, “I’ve made it this far, I’ve only got a little ways to go,” because there are no landmarks on this route. This life doesn’t have a roadmap, and some day, that lack of direction may just catch up with me.
You know,that famous Robert Frost poem from which I cribbed my title today has two interpretations. The first is the optimistic, greeting card interpretation that people give it when they’re slipping it into graduation speeches and posting it as a Facebook status. “If you choose your own path, that will make all the difference,” the poem seems to be saying. This interpretation is wrong.
The real message of the poem – the warning – is about constantly second guessing our decisions. The narrator spends his life obsessing over the roads he didn’t take. It’s not about a man of decisiveness, but a man of regrets. We either learn to live with them, or they become everything we see.
It’s something to accept – when I’m broke, when I’m sick, when I’m uncertain how far away from normalcy my next detour will take me – that every path leads to regrets, even when the destination is happiness. I don’t know how this one is going to turn out. One day I may choose the road that leads to nothing but regrets.
Until then, though, I guess I’ll just keep walking.
You murmur your poems in a hall of doors and mirrors and I strain to hear. Your voice barely carries through the staid air so I make eyes with the reflection of a bodacious blonde, herself half awake. These mirrors broadcast more effectively than the second generation speakers erected by grad students. You command this room, its stifled yawns and watering eyes, but poetry is a dead art, you quip, selling twelve more collections of your critically-beloved, publicly-ignored jumble of words. Well, I fail to make an impression on her, the red-lipped heiress who exits before the free pinot gris evaporates. There are others: a brunette in a knit cap, two French girls discussing a boy, professors of literature. For an hour, we are your audience, but afterwards, like ex-lovers, we are too ashamed to make eye contact.
Ryan Gosling’s left shoe is made of gold and dipped in chocolate and if sold will save the orphanage. My left shoe is worn through the heel and reeks of chicken grease and stagnant mop water and if I were an orphan I’d think Ryan Gosling was a saint. My abs lack definition and my cheekbones can’t cut glass when I smile so I’m happy there’s a Ryan Gosling to carve the stainglass windows of the cathedral which overlooks the orphanage. These children need something to look up to and if it wasn’t the Holy Father in his bedazzling display of light they’d have nothing to believe in besides Ryan Gosling’s left shoe. And what sort of faith is that, putting a man on such a pedestal?
It’s not okay to be in love. It’s, in fact, a very dangerous thing. I’d recommend you avoid it, but it’s not much of a choice, is it? You know how the girls are, which is not how the boys are, except when it’s exactly how the boys are, when they are all afraid that the next one is the last one, or the last one will be the last one, or that there never will be a last one. So they can be quite shitty to each other; we can be quite shitty to each other. We can also be quite beautiful in moments, the way a storm is beautiful when it’s holding court up above and a bird flies in place and for a few minutes it feels like the whole planet stopped turning; the sky is purple, your heart is a wind chaser, she is a safe place to rest and this cyclone keeps on spinning. No one asks to get off, but only one ride lasts forever and it takes all we have just to make forever feel like a full life. So we give in. To love. To being loved. And in the fall, we think, this is yet another of my many mistakes for which I will surely pay a dear price, but.