Books, yall, the power of them.
(Note: I wrote this several years ago. My feelings have changes some since then, but I thought it was an interesting snapshot of my thinking at the time.)
Every year, around January, I begin to feel this creeping gloom and dread, regular as clockwork. For a long time I chalked it up to the dim winter light and cold, the long nights. I always assumed it was a coincidence that January is my birthday month. Now, I’m not so sure.
Sometimes I’m driving my kids to school or drinking coffee or strolling about the neighborhood and I start wondering, “Why am I here?” Not in an existential way, you understand. I’m actually wondering how I could possibly be here. You see, based on what I know about my birth, I shouldn’t actually be here. I shouldn’t have survived the story of my birth, and yet, here I am.
I’ve listened to the story of my birth probably hundreds of times. Sheer repetition has caused me to ignore the improbability of it all for a long time. It wasn’t strange, because it was so familiar. Because it became familiar, I started telling people the story, almost as if I had been there myself. I mean, I was there, but I wasn’t. It’s difficult for me to tell the story in a thoughtful way, because it became so rote for so long. For no particular reason that I can identify, I’ve started pondering this story in a way I never have before.
My birthday is in January, but I should have been born in early April. I was born much too soon and with circumstances that should have ended things right there.
Let me back up. I’m trying to tell this story in a way that I haven’t done before. It’s so easy to fixate on the funny details, like the tipi or the goat. The funny details have always, for me anyway, helped obscure the intensity and struggle for survival, the darkness and fear, of that night.
My mom was hitchhiking and my dad picked her up. That’s how they met. It was Santa Cruz. It was the 70s. They were hippies, I guess, at a time when that had stopped being cool. Except in little hippy enclaves, like the Santa Cruz mountains. I only remember my mom telling this story once. My dad never has. I was always both intrigued and repulsed hearing stories about the time before I was born. I have no idea if this is typical or not. I’ve always hated asking direct questions of people, instead preferring to infer meaning and story from hints and oblique comments.
I know that my dad was driving his truck. I know that my mom was hitchhiking. I know that my dad picked her up. I know that they hit it off and spent the weekend together. I know…. actually, I don’t know any of this. I only know this from what my mom has told me, a precarious knowing. Even now, the thought of asking her direct questions about this time makes me feel cold and tense. As I write this, I find my body hunched forward, curled slightly around my belly, right shoulder turned forward.
I don’t know, but I can infer, that I was the result of that first meeting between my parents. I know nothing of what that discovery was like. I know nothing of the first conversation about that. I know nothing of those next several months. At some point, my parents moved in together. Right now, you’re probably imagining two people moving into a house, maybe filled with hairy, dirty kids hanging out of windows. Maybe you’re imagining a small apartment, a couch, some chairs, definitely a kitchen.
Imagine: a circle on the ground, perhaps 15-20 feet wide. Now stretch the edge of the circle up, up, like topographical clay, and in, until the edge of the circle shrinks into a point about 10-12 feet above. Now imagine that stretched edge is made of some kind of tough waterproof fabric, canvas maybe.
A tipi. (Or teepee, if you prefer). Yes, my parents lived in a tipi. It’s like the punchline to a joke. I have to imagine that the tipi was set up on a wooden platform of some kind, for it to make any kind of longterm sense.
That in itself would be enough for a story, right? I’ve certainly never met anyone else who’s lived in one. Let alone as any kind of longterm arrangement.
Other things I know about this time: My parent’s were squatting on some guy’s land, rent free. My parents owned or took care of a goat. My mother apparently loved to do cartwheels and somersaults. My mother’s son, my half-brother, lived with his dad. That Christmas before I was born, my mother made paper chain decorations. I don’t think there was a tree. My mother really liked the mini-series, Roots, but couldn’t watch it in the tipi without electricity.
Things I imagine, but don’t know for sure: I imagine there were kerosene lamps and candles. I imagine that the floor of the tipi was covered in rugs, blankets, pillows. Maybe there was a chair or two. Maybe not. I imagine maybe a propane camp stove. I suspect that my imaginings are, despite my best efforts, influenced by pictures of the John Lennon/Yoko Ono bed-in.
Over the years, my mother has had different ideas about why I was born early. The current theory involves the goat. Apparently, my parents had a goat. Or there was a goat that was around. One day shortly before I was born, my mom was walking the goat on a line. The goat bolted and, instead of letting go of the line, she held on, falling face first on the ground. I’ve been told my grandmother thought it had something to do with my mom’s doing cartwheels and somersaults. Perhaps it was something else. They were hippies, after all.
Whatever the reason, on that cold January night, my mom, alone with my two year old brother, went into labor. Then I was born. I’m not sure how long they were there with me, before my dad came home from work. No telephone. I imagine my dad walking down a hill, walking slowly through the dark, maybe my mom was yelling, and then he started hurrying. I imagine him bursting into the tipi, witnessing all the messiness of birth. I imagine him running up the hill to his truck, his car, his what, I don’t even know.
It’s at this point in the story when I start to realize all the questions I didn’t ask. What was it like running back up (?) the hill through the dark? What it was it like fumbling with car keys in the dark? What was it like making that decision–to try and get my mom, my brother, and me to the car or to try and go for help? It can’t have been easy, but, for me, he made the right one. Here I am. Typing this.
I don’t know if he went for a telephone or if he went to the nearest bar to get help. Whatever he did, he found the only quasi-official rescue workers in that small mountain town: the part-time, unpaid volunteer firemen.
My mom said they were very professional when they arrived, although she could smell the beer on their breath, their beer-breath frosting in the cold January night. They bundled her, and me, and my brother up in a blanket, got them in a truck, and started driving down that twisty twisty mountain highway. Somewhere along the way, they met an ambulance. I recall my mom marveling at how calm and collected the volunteer firemen were compared to how freaked out the EMT was. He started unwrapping the blanket covering me and my mom, wanting to cut the umbilical cord (was it still uncut?), but she yelled at him and got in the ambulance. Apparently, there was some talk about a helicopter ride, but it was not to be.
Since, I’ve driven that mountain highway many times. It’s a long 19 miles to the Santa Cruz city limits and then however long it is from there to the hospital. A long long drive in which I stayed alive. A long long drive to the hospital, where I had to live in an incubator, a warm box, to keep me alive for the next several weeks.
I have stamps of my tiny hands and feet. I have a photo of my dad holding my entire body in his two cupped hands. I have a photo of my mom looking down at me. Somehow, from that small self, I arrived at the person I am now. From less than three pounds I have grown and grown.
I grew and grew from something small. And so did you and you and you. Now that I have children of my own, I marvel at how they’ve grown, too, from things so small. From a thing you cannot even see to a thing that rolls and spins and shouts around a room.
So, yes, I wonder sometimes how that happened. Not how I came to be, but how I came to still be here. Because it seems like, somehow, somewhere on that dark cold road, that windy road of rock and stabbing pines, I should have ceased to be. I don’t think there’s some magical explanation. I don’t think I have some deeper purpose in this life.
But I do try to live my life with care. Sometimes I remember why.
January 14, 2023
O Goose! a cat that marks the highest point of water on the shore,
I wasn’t sure, at first, though others were, what to make of you.
That first night, all the lights ablaze, you yowled atop the stair
and wagged your trail so waggishly (we almost named you Dog):
I dreaded your oddness and your wild ways, the way you lapped
water from the shower stall, and meowed your smoker’s growl.
We took our time warming up, Goose, but soon a fondest friend.
But Goose instead, the name we chose, to suit your silly ways.
(“Honey” didn’t catch the edge, the sharpness of your eye or claw.)
You loved your boxes, yarn, and patch before the fire, and took
your seat at the table to join us while we ate. O Goose!
At first, we struggled to trim your claws, you wriggled and writhed,
clawed and bit. You weren’t afraid to whap us as we walked by.
We took it all in stride; we’re a moody family who speaks our mind.
Goose! We gave you many names: Goose and Witty and Woo and
Witty-woo and Sissle and Cat and Goosay Languagay and Goose
Esteban. The vet got your name wrong, Deuce, and we laughed
but were annoyed all the same. You didn’t seem to mind much,
all the names that spun about you every day. You seemed to know,
your name, and though you never came when called, we heralded
your entrance with cries of “Goose!” O Goose, I’ll miss you on the stair.
You left your mark, like your two cat tracks on the stair, one for up,
one for down, on each of us. All our house was a place for you to sleep
or climb or jump. You woke us up each morning, early, with no sense
of weekends or holidays. You’d jump on the bed and rattle the lamp
as you jumped down or rub your cheeks against my stack of books.
O Goose! we knew when you were mad, because you’d scratch.
We knew when you were cozy, from the way you’d curl, legs stuck out.
You loved cardboard, whether it was a box or just a scrap of board.
On summer days, you’d roam, looking for the sunlight glancing in,
to snooze. Then, once warm, you’d find a cooler place to rest.
O Goose, we love you so. How sunlight made your fur glow, your lair
not-so-secret, behind the couch and curtain. I remember, even now,
the feeling the sun burning from your fur, stretching out to cool.
The office chair that was your bed is covered in your fur.
Those times you dragged tangles of yarn all around our house.
That time you stuck a too small box upon your head. Your charm
captured the smile of all who came to visit. O Goose, our cat.
You loved turkey and salmon and fish and loved a food until you didn’t.
When we left, you yowled to let us know that we’d been missed.
And now, you’re missed, it’s all our turn to yowl and think of you.
We called you “best cat” and I know it to be true, O Goose.
Only four short years, how long it seems ago, when we brought you home.
Too short four years, to hear your padding on the stair, to hear your purr
and scratch your chin, to feel you fall asleep between my feet, O Goose.
Farewell, my friend, old cat, my mind will ever turn to thoughts of you,
with fond feeling and a smile as the sadness comes upon me then.
We’ll miss you, Goose, and all you brought to share your time with us.
Goose, best cat, friend: we remember you fondly and with love.
Some books I liked that I read in 2022:
Shady Characters: the Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks by Keith Houston: A book that’s tailor-made for my interests. Still, Keith Houston took a topic that might’ve been quite dull and turned it into something lively, interesting, and chockablock full of fascinating historical tidbits.
The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata: Reads like a novel, but it’s the recounting of the last Go match of Honinbo Shūsai. No understanding of the game of Go needed. A window into a different time and place. Deeply thought-provoking.
Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson: A rollicking ride from start to finish. I know Neal Stephenson’s not for everyone (he can really go a bit overboard with the technical detail and digressions) but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Stayed up way too late reading it a couple of nights.
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño: The story of a Catholic priest’s collaboration and deliberate ignorance of the violent excesses of Pinochet’s coup and government. Extremely well-written (or well-translated, I should say).
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman: A detailed and astonishing recounting of the lead up to WW1 and its first month. If you like history, Tuchman is at the top of her game here. (I also heartily recommend her history of Europe’s 14th century: A Distant Mirror.)
Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence by Bryan Burrough: For me, this extremely even-handed history of 1960s and 70s USA helped to demystify a period of time that I have long felt pretty ignorant of.
The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman: The protagonist reminds me a bit of the thief character in Ladyhawke. Clever and fun, this book is fun romp through an original fantasy world. A perfect travel read.
The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turon: A 17th century whodunnit on a ship at sea! This one kept me guessing the whole time. If you like whodunnits, definitely check this one out.
The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald: A nameless character walks around the English countryside and ruminates on things that he sees and his own life. Deeply satisfying. There’s some amazing writing here.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens: This is so good. Like swimming in an ocean of words. I did not expect a detective of kindness. (For another detective of kindness, see Benoit Blanc in Knives Out and the Glass Onion.) Not my favorite Dickens novel, but I really really liked it.
Aspects by John M. Ford: An unfinished novel by an exceptional writer. There’s some interpersonal nuance captured in this book that I don’t often see.
Babel: or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by RF Kuang: Basically, if the Harry Potter books were written by someone exceptionally well-read and interested in exploring the way that something like magic would reshape and contort a country and the world and the people in it.