Tea with Sleeping Dog

img_3254On the nights when dreams are far from comforting, and the aches of an overused body and a troubled soul project slow and familiar horror shows on the desert night screens of my eyelids, the relief of the coming of morning cannot be overstated.

I sat down to write about tea. Tea is a comfort and a human ritual as old as fire and pottery. I made tea, sat at my desk to the sound of the dog snoring on the other side of the room, and thought about sleep and the impossibility of sleep. There is light on the horizon now, silhouetting the papaya leaves rustling over the back fence. Soon, sunlight will shine on the desktop, and I’ll put the ordeals of sleep out of my mind for another day.

As a child, I walked through nightmares of a pure and surreal horror, of an army of land swimmers breast-stroking across the pasture, between the horses, toward the window where I awaited whatever doom they were never quite able to bring. My mother watched, silhouetted in the bedroom doorway, terrified by my sleepwalking and the nonsense I was speaking.
“Shut the door quick, Mom, before you let all the darkness out.”

When night terrors receded, and I learned to relish a young man’s deep slumber, I slept many a dreamless night and blocked the light of morning with a pillow until roused from bed to carry books and saxophone up a mile of overgrown, snake-infested country roadside, to a bus stop I shared with a kid whose greatest joy was knocking me down in the dirt. In those days, escaping into books, and into sleep, were my solace. One afternoon, I learned to fight back, bloodied the bus stop bully, and slept better for awhile.

Driven from home, I put myself through school by cooking, bartending, serving those with money to pay. For a few years, those nights went up in smoke, obliterated by alcohol, weed, and the slow parade of friends, lovers, and strangers who shared the wee hours with me. I once had a roommate who slept with a 12-inch kitchen knife under his pillow. Did I sleep at all?

The money ran out. I enlisted in the National Guard, joined R.O.T.C. the following year, and graduated on a stage with my long-estranged parents each pinning a gleaming second lieutenant’s bar on one of my shoulders.

As a soldier, I learned to sleep, night or day, still or in motion, on the ground, in a truck, or in a parachute harness bathed in red light and sweat with a helmet as my thrumming pillow against the bulkhead of an airborne C-130 until the jumpmaster’s “Stand up!” passed from front to back, paratrooper to paratrooper, with a tap on our snoozing armored heads.

The smell of tent canvas, diesel fumes, and CLP weapons oil in the pre-dawn darkness prompted an appetite for Army grits, powdered eggs, and coffee too hot to drink from a steel canteen cup. These smells persist like grooves in vinyl.

Never stand when you can sit. Never sit when you can lie down. Never stay awake when you can…

Sleep. If you can. And dream. I remember more of my dreams these days. Some leave traces of great adventures, voices, or the scent of a person’s skin. Most replay some version of my failures, crimes, fears, and inadequacies. When sleep abandons me, and I lie awake beside Susan, and my mind begins to prey upon itself like a starving wolf eating its own paw, I rise for a glass of water and to check the time, to write what I can piece together, to make tea, and to await the forgetfulness of sunlight.

Some who I love, who will still have me, will rise in a couple hours. We’ll laugh and share breakfast, and I’ll be able to look forward to the possibility of a good night’s sleep and the dreams that may come, and maybe to dream something sweet, right up until sunrise.

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Goodbye Facebook, and Other News

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With Susan in Bristol, TN, for the 2018 Rhythm & Roots Music Festival

Hi, Friends. It’s been awhile. I hope you’re all well.

I’m going to ramble on a bit, so maybe make yourself a cup of whatever bitter brew you’re partial to, and come on back. I’m sipping some scalding Earl Grey with orange peel and honey. It’s 7:00am, and I’m dressed for the 6-mile run I’ll start when I finish this post.

It’s 69F and cloudy in Valrico, Florida. Birds are singing outside. I look forward to breathing deeply of the humid morning air for about an hour. I’ll listen to a podcast while I run, probably Starship Sofa, since it’s exactly the right length, and one of my favorites. The host, Tony C. Smith kinda grows on you. I’ve been listening for more than a decade. Good luck with the allotment, Tony.

Some news. Last month, fed up with Facebook’s evil machinations, I downloaded my data and deleted my account. It felt drastic, but necessary. If you miss my Facebook posts, thank you, and I’m sorry to have vanished from your feed.

Facebook’s product is usI had begun to feel like a sort of digital farm animal, bled daily by an amoral corporation that we now know uses our data in ways not in our best interest, including mining our personal chat conversations. Facebook has become the internet’s most bloated and loathsome parasite. So I’m out. But to those former Facebook friends who miss me there, know that I miss you too. So, if you care, get in touch. There are so many ways. If you’re local, give me a call, and let’s go get a cup of coffee or a couple beers. If you’re not nearby, send an email. I know this is crazy, but you could even write me a letter, on paper. I promise to answer. Postage stamps–a reason to leave the house!

There were scores of people with whom I was acquainted only through Facebook. I decided that Facebook relationships, unless they exist on some other level, are not real relationships in the sense that I want to experience them. And these artificial relationships weren’t worth the data tax I was paying to the Zuckerberg Empire.

I’ll miss Mikhail Iossel’s beautiful photography and writing, the University of Tampa MFA Alumni page, John Santa’s Marathon Jam adventures supporting the Fisher House. I’ll miss seeing relatives’ posts about the lives they live that I never otherwise see. But I’m old enough to remember life before social media, and I know that authentic relationships don’t necessarily depend on a wi-fi connection. Nevertheless, you can still find me on Twitter, @steventhowell, and on Instagram (also owned by Facebook but possibly less intrusive and less…evil?) as stethohow.

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I last ran the Gasparilla 15k on a chilly morning in 2015.

Speaking of age, getting old sucks. I’m training for the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 15k next month, and my body protests more every year. I’ve been running regularly since 1985, and I don’t know how I’d go on without it. I feel best when I’m outside, covering ground. It’s when I’m sedentary that the aches and pains make themselves known. I know my hips and knees won’t put up with this forever. I’m not the 30-year old soldier I used to be. Someday I’ll have to stop running, but not today.

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Mt. Sterling, KY

Almost exactly a year ago our family lost a loved one, my father-in-law, Charles “Chili” Ishmael.  Christmas was bittersweet, but we gathered in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, to remember him and celebrate all the new things happening with our children. Weddings planned. Babies born. Hopes for the future. Love is abundant in my life, and I am grateful.

In 2018 our two older dogs passed on. The first, about six months ago, had lived to a ripe old age, in dog years. The second, our beloved Lucy, leapt from the open tailgate of my SUV on a rainy afternoon, slipped on the way out, and broke her back before my very eyes. I’ve struggled with the feeling that, if I had only reacted more quickly, I could have saved her. Life is better with dogs, but they’re with us for such a short time.

I’m writing fiction. I’ll soon be looking for a couple critical readers for a short story that’s just about finished. (any volunteers?) It’s inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” but in a much different setting and circumstances. When I’m done with that, I plan to dive back into a novel I’ve had in storage for 11 years. The reasons I abandoned it have turned to dust, and I think it could be a good book. So I’m going to try again.

So, what is this blog for? I still don’t know. Maybe just clearing my mind in the morning before a run. And now it’s time to hit the road.

Keep in touch, Friends.

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Friends Welcome. Come Visit.

 

Mr. Lambert, Take Down That Flag

If you’ve driven near the I-4 & I-75 interchange in Tampa, you’ve seen the huge Confederate flag. That flag is a perpetual slap in the face to every African-American in Hillsborough County. Every time I’ve driven by that flag, I’ve wondered who’s responsible. Who would go to such trouble to display such a divisive symbol?
Here’s who–Marion Lambert.
Old Marion seems like such a down-to-earth guy, doesn’t he? According to the Tampa Bay Times’ October 24th human interest story, he’s quite proud of his namesake, an ancestor who Marion says served in Tennessee under the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. In case you’re light on American history, Gen. Forrest founded the Ku Klux Klan.
Oh, but Marion’s just a Good Old Boy, never meanin’ no harm. Why he even employs a live-in African-American woman as a housekeeper. So clearly, not a racist at all.
This flag business is all about his “heritage.”
I’ve heard that same ignorant bullshit all my southern life from misguided people, often good people, sometimes people I love, who simply don’t understand the propaganda they’ve been fed from birth, the full reality of the brutal slave state the Confederacy was, and the open wounds from which our country is trying so hard to heal.
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I think Mr. Lambert understands perfectly the effects of his choice to display an enormous symbol of hate in the most public place possible.
I’ve said it to myself each time I’ve driven past that damned flag, and I’ll say it here. As a white person, and a southerner, you make me feel ashamed, Mr. Lambert. I hope you have the opportunity to feel, sometime in this life or the next, the way you make thousands of our fellow Americans who are descendants of slaves feel when they drive past the hateful flag you saw fit to hoist over the busiest intersection in Florida.
I suspect you’d deny being a traitor even more emphatically than you deny being a racist. But Florida hasn’t been part of the rebellious Confederacy for a century and a half. So why not pull that treasonous flag down, and replace it with the Stars and Stripes? Many of us would thank you for getting that thing out of our sight.

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

My son, here may indeed be torment, but not death.
—Dante (Purgatorio)

I finished the final 70 or so pages of George Saunders’ masterpiece this morning. It has been around for awhile, and I realize I’m late to the party, but I’m compelled to try to explain the effect this book had on…my soul.

Saunders addresses issues that have plagued American life and thought since the beginning of our democracy. He also addresses existential issues that all of humanity has wrestled with since we first looked up from a campfire and wondered why the hell we were here on this world. The book seems to spring from a sort-of Catholic point of view, as the entire novel is set in an interpretation of Purgatory–the Bardo. (Bardo– in Tibetan Buddhism, a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to the length of, and conduct in a person’s life, and the manner of death.).

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William Wallace Lincoln, c. 1862

I could go on for days, so let me toss out a few ideas from this novel that intrigue and terrify me. None of these ideas are new to me, yet, strangely, I find myself newly concerned with them in a more urgent manner than before. This, friends, is the first clue that one has encountered great literature. I’ll keep it to three, though the book brims with fascinating concepts:

Judgement–that once we have committed sins in this life, they are irrevocable and cannot be atoned for. A price must be paid. Judgement is a horrifying prospect, especially as it unfolds in this novel as an implacable and clearly defined process for which there can be no remedy or exception. Saunders’ depiction of a particular sinner’s entry into hell is especially sobering. Make some room on the doom sofa, Dante Alighieri.

The Afterlife—that it may dwarf our carnal existence in terms of what we call “time,” but its nature may be wholly dependent upon the acts we commit during our flash-in-the-pan sojourn on Earth. Lincoln in the Bardo thrusts a filth-encrusted mirror before my eyes in which I see my whole life, my choices, my mistakes…my crimes. Perhaps the greatest/most terrifying thing about this book, for me, is the lightning-strike imperative it conveys to Be Better; I must do what I can to atone for my sins here. Now. Otherwise, I am doomed. This feeling springs not only from my innate sense of self-preservation, but from the compassion I feel for those I have wronged and the love I have forgotten how to express for certain people who may not realize they’re dear to me.

Racism—As fictional Lincoln admits is the case within himself, once we, as children, have been tainted by racist ideals and institutions handed down to us from previous generations, we carry it inside us, often invisibly, throughout our lives in the same way we carry any other childhood-learned sense of what the world is and how it works.
The difference in some is that, once knowledge enlightens us; when the light of day shines on the festering places in our souls and illuminates the ugliness harbored there, we can begin to resist. Once we learn to recognize injustice, we can live as good people who choose not to act on our worst impulses. Nevertheless, the racism the world feeds us as children survives like a dormant disease that must be managed by constant attention and learning and above all, true compassion.

So many human beings, whether wittingly or not, nurse their infants on mother’s milk tainted with an insidious moral poison that those fortunate enough to become aware of it must spend their lives working to overcome in themselves. Saunders’ Lincoln shows us that the humility of recognizing this must come before we can make a meaningful effort to address racism in the world around us.

And yes, my fellow white Americans, I’m mainly talking about us.

The “best” literature urges us to be better than we are, to push the edge of civilization ever further into the wilderness of ignorance and hatred that surrounds us; to simply love as hard as we can, for as long as we have, and stop doing harm.

I’m not a person who shows a lot of outward emotion, but…yes, this book makes me weep with remorse, with existential terror, with gratitude, and with jaw-dropping awe at the absolute artistic mastery of George Saunders.

Memory, History, and Civilization

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I know things that I cannot remember. If I can’t recall a piece of information, do I still know it? At times, usually long after the recollection would have been useful, forgotten bits of memory resurface, and I again have access to the information. Sometimes it’s a scent or a sound or a color that whacks the chassis of my memory in just the right way to coax the mechanism back into operation. Sometimes it’s inexplicable.

I never forget faces, but I sometimes forget names. I forget the names of people I meet at social gatherings, sometimes within seconds. Sometimes within minutes, despite inwardly repeating the name to myself in an effort to retain it. I forget the names of people I choose not to know. I forget the names of people I have known in the past—coworkers, classmates, people with whom I shared drinks, conversation, and hard work. These are often people whose acquaintance was a matter of necessity alone. No amount of self-interrogation will produce their names. They are lost to me. Yet weeks later, perhaps while running or cooking or in the moments before I open my eyes in the morning, a name will come to me. I’ll hear the person’s voice and experience the same emotions I felt the last time I saw that person. Though their names were lost to me for a time, I knew them. I never forget the names of people I love. I never forget the names of people I despise.

Some of my journals are older than my children, and it’s clear that my memory of events is far from accurate. More often than not, when I search an old journal for a person, event, or details such as an address, I find that what I read matches my memory not at all. My own handwriting reads like a letter from an alternate past. My journals are mental time capsules from a version of myself that I have overwritten like an internal hard drive, so many times that the original information only exists in the form of dried ink on paper. In my mind, facts are fungible, malleable things. Only in these journals do memories become artifacts that can be handled years later like weathered objects pulled from a chilly bog.

What does all this tell me about the things that I know? How can I be certain I’m right about anything I’ve learned in my half-century of life? There must be an aggregate of knowledge that exists in a thinking person’s mind that doesn’t depend on any one, particular bit of information. Maybe this is what we call street smarts, horse sense, or wisdom. Yet, as I type these words, it occurs to me that claiming wisdom in oneself must be the first step toward becoming an old fool who thinks he knows everything and has nothing more to learn about the world and the creatures that inhabit it.

History and literature provide human civilization with the wisdom of facts. We can read about the triumphs and mistakes of those who lived and loved and suffered before us. Memory isn’t a prerequisite for our species’ progress, but the ability to interpret humanity’s past is.

We remember things that we cannot know. Such memories are inborn. The compassion of humanity lives in us as it has in all those who came before us. This knowledge of the soul doesn’t require a written record to comprehend. We know in the marrow of our bones, for example, that stealing children from their mothers is a monstrous act. Yet some choose to use their innate will and intelligence to circumvent their conscience. They act outside morality to seize power or wealth and convince those who understand the faulty nature of human memory and reasoning that evil is a justifiable path to good. In such cases, the ape with the biggest stick often gains the upper hand and does a great deal of damage. Intelligent people go along with the gas-lit madness, succumbing by reasonable increments to fascism. Sleepwalking into oblivion.

Others read the journals.

We’ve seen this again and again. Most of us are too young to remember, but we have the history. Fascists constantly try to reinvent themselves. This time, in America, they’re draped in stars and stripes. They tell us that compassion is weakness, and there aren’t enough resources to go around. Again, they deny history and offer an alternate reality of their own invention.

The free press is the canary in the coalmine. When journalists begin to suffer arrest or worse at the hands of authoritative figures, as they do in under several current authoritarian regimes,  we’ll know we’re in an existential crisis as a nation. As always, the success of tyrants depends on our complicity, and our continued silence may only mean the monster will devour us last.

 

“I Heard the News Today Oh, Boy”

Screen Shot 2018-05-26 at 8.53.33 AMAmerica experiences a new massacre every couple days now. The solution leaders across the nation are choosing is placing armed security guards in schools. As a stop-gap measure, this seems necessary. But…it’s a band-aid placed over a cancer (with thoughts and prayers), not a cure for America’s unique gun violence epidemic. It also happens to be perfectly aligned with the interests of the National Rifle Association. Why, it’s almost as if our politicians consult the NRA before making gun policy decisions, or choosing not to make them.
Unless our school guard recruits report for duty packing M-4s and wearing body armor, they’ll be under-armed and ineffective against an assailant with an AR and nothing to lose. These folks will be minimally-paid and undertrained, yet expected to step in front of a hail of bullets. Perhaps a firefight in the schoolyard is better than mass murder. This is where we find ourselves.
It seems we’re too proud to take the lead of other countries who have mostly solved their mass shooting problem, if they ever had one, by removing military-style weapons from the civilian population. The per-capita statistics speak for themselves on that front. We’ve heard it many times, but the question is valid–shouldn’t any firearm ownership should be subject to at least the same regulation as driving an automobile?
I am not against firearm ownership and have been a gun owner myself. But I see no justification for not banning the types of weapons that most or all of our shootings have in common. We’re allowing criminals to alter the once-peaceful landscape of hometown America.
Some might find the following message interesting, sent to Hillsborough County, FL, parents on behalf of our sheriff yesterday:
Dear Parents and Guardians,
There is no greater priority than the safety and security of our children. Recently, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, along with Hillsborough Public Schools and our local law enforcement partners, announced a unified school safety plan. I know you have received a lot of information about it already, but I wanted to make sure you heard from me personally.
Next school year every traditional public school and charter school within Hillsborough County will have an armed presence on school grounds. The job of these highly trained individuals is to deter potential threats and immediately respond to active shooter incidents. I have attached a fact sheet highlighting some key information about our plan. As always, if you have any comments or suggestions, do not hesitate to reach out to our office.
I know the school year is coming to a close this week. Although there have been no threats to our area or schools, we have added an increased law enforcement presence at schools to round out the year. Please enjoy your summer with your family and children. When you come back to school next year, know we will be there with you. We look forward to seeing you in the fall.
Sincerely,
Sheriff Chad Chronister

Love and Rockets

kaf-38.jpgWhile working on a longer story that included my memory of a rocket attack on a  U.S. Army forward operating base in Afghanistan, I got stuck on some details. To get past it, I tried to put myself in the boots of a young soldier working on the FOB, one who didn’t particularly care how the war turned out–one who simply wanted to go home and recover his abandoned life. I ended up with a piece of flash fiction, something I’ve never tried before. Thanks to Every Day Fiction for publishing the result.

 

 

VCCA Update

The snow has mostly melted away here at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. The winter storm that made the drive from Kentucky to Virginia such an icy, salty adventure blanketed the area in a layer of ice. A couple fellows are nursing bruises after slipping and falling on the way to their studio spaces last week, and I nearly bit the ice myself early yesterday.

Today is a day to prepare for the coming week of intense work. It’s my fourth full day at the residency, and I’m only now feeling settled into a routine.

I’ve been tweaking a story I wrote a couple years ago and put away in disgust when I discovered that the movie Passengers was essentially the same story, only with movie stars and a robot barman. I pulled it out of the trunk last week and spent a couple days experimenting with different character points of view, only to reach the conclusion that it’s dead. So, onward with a new idea.

Last night after dinner, a dozen or so fellows spent time in the library talking about our work, and the breadth of knowledge and experience in the room was humbling. Visual artists, music composers, and writers, all in a room together with a bottle of bourbon, is a recipe for great conversation. After midnight, it was down to two other writers and myself. We have our craft in common, but come from different backgrounds–a Jew, a Catholic, and a Protestant. One from the Netherlands, one from Texas, and one from Florida. Each of us stretched our perception to understand the different experience of the others, and I believe we’ve become friends. I can’t wait to read their work.

So…imposter syndrome. I suffer from it. I mean, I’m not sure how I’m even here with these tremendously talented people. Then I remember that it’s because someone thought my work was worthwhile. I look at the badge attached to the keys fellows are issued here, and beneath my name is the word “Writer.” So, not only must I make myself worthy of this opportunity by working my ass off in the quiet, perfect writing studio provided for my use, I must learn to think of myself not as an old soldier who dabbles in fiction, but as a writer. If we don’t learn to believe in our own talent, why should anyone else? This is my chance to prove that I can do this.

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Postcard on the Wall of the VCCA Library Telephone Closet

My goal here is to make significant progress toward a short story collection, for which I hope to find a publisher in the near future. I’ll try to post updates for anyone who’s interested, but mostly for my own benefit and the feeling of accountability for this precious time to write without interference from the real world.

And now, it’s time to get back to work.

Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Residency

I’m pretty excited about this, so I’ll share it here. A couple months ago, I applied for a fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). I suffer from chronic imposter syndrome as a writer, so it felt like a shot in the dark. My submission included the short story “The Grove,” which Jacksonville’s wonderful Bridge Eight Literary Magazine published a couple years ago, and a 500-word story about surviving a rocket attack in Afghanistan. To my amazement, I received an email from the VCCA Deputy Director on Thursday notifying me that I’ve been scheduled for a mid-January residency.

Here’s a bit from Deputy Director Sheila Gulley Pleasants’ email:

VCCA’s mission is to provide a creative space in which our best national and international artists (you!) produce their finest work. We take our mission very seriously, but we also know that some Fellows are interested in sharing their work, and we at VCCA are interested in promoting the arts in general and the work of our Fellows in particular.
If this is of interest to you, there are a number of opportunities for you to share your work in the local community.  These opportunities include meeting with students and faculty at Sweet Briar College, presenting work at community centers and art galleries, and opening your studio to visiting groups here at VCCA.
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VCCA Corn Crib (Writers’ Studio) Photo by

VCCA furnishes artists with a private studio, a private bedroom with semi-private bath, and three prepared meals each day.  There are 25 writers, composers, and visual artists in residence at any given time, and I can’t imagine a better environment for focus and concentration than their beautiful campus, quite possibly blanketed in snow. (Florida Man will be digging out some long-dormant clothing layers for this trip.)

For the next few weeks, I’ll develop a personal regimen to make the most of precious residency time, and I’ll probably spend way too much time making a packing list. I think I’ll bring a guitar. Definitely a camera and sketchpad.
I hope to not only get a lot of serious work done, but to meet interesting people and, if I’m extremely lucky, make a few friends.
So…wow. I’m humbled and grateful, and this is going to be fun.