My Life as a Murakami Novel

At the start of the pandemic I was immersed in Murakami’s mid-90’s novel The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. I had recently signed a lease on a small commercial space and fixed it up with a fresh coat of pale grey paint, dark blue velvet curtains and dimmable incandescent ceiling lights. It was to be my new yoga studio, but the pandemic put the brakes on inviting students to practice. A few times each week, I’d bike up to the space and sit alone in the quiet darkness. It reminded me of being at the bottom of a well, like Toru Okada in the book.

As more elements of normalcy were removed from the passing days, life in general began to feel like it was being lived at the bottom of a well.

As the eerie silence descended over the city and the world, one block away from my house the oldest Moonlight Tower in Austin was dissembled, adding darkness to the silence. I appreciated the extra starlight, though I missed the comfort of the landmark lattice punctuating the familiar street corner sky.

Because I wasn’t in a hurry to do so, I took a long time to finish the novel. The cinematically haunting sequences that unfolded in that odd dark space behind the well walls confused me the way a dream might.

My own dreams were growing more and more psychedelic; lucid only in the sense of that self-awareness that the dreamer has within the dream.

When I finally surrendered my yoga studio space at the end of August, I told a friend it had felt like I’d knitted an elaborate sweater, only to unravel it before completing the final stitch. A sweater that never got worn and that only “exists” as the memory of an idea. She reminded me that Penelope in The Odyssey had woven, unraveled, rewoven the same garment over and over while waiting for Odysseus’ return.

A year has passed. A week or so ago, workers blocked the street with traffic cones and unspooled long cables. Large trucks brought back hefty chunks of the refurbished structure, to be reassembled and re-erected/resurrected. It only took them a couple of days to get it put back together, as if it never left.

Even as restaurants fill and people begin to get dressed again, my dreams remain dangerous, beautiful, strange. Like the street corner sky with the missing tower, like the space behind the well walls: evanescent evidence of a different reality.

After the Storm

Two days ago snow blanketed the same pavement where this morning a kid ran slowly in flip-flops, their footfall a strange meditative cadence specific to their height and type of shoe.

On the fence a mockingbird twitched as if distrustful of the emerging warmth.

The sky hasn’t decided, or it keeps its decision to itself. We walk together or alone for our own reasons, not revealed, other than a mutual acceptance of the dog needing to get out, and each of us wanting without irony or metaphor to simply stretch our legs.

What is sky? Our subjective experience of looking up, gazing. skyward, registering amorphous color and shape.

At night, the constancy and predictable fluidity of our moon and stars. Constellations, airplanes, satellites. The surprise of a comet or an asteroid; the exoticism of a UFO,

Our small dog checks his enthusiasm with each new step. The known world tricks us but it’s part of the contract.

In our front yard the two cats stalk and pounce around the fallen limbs and the maybe-dead plants. Some will recover, bounce back, we can even say they may or will spring to life

The cats pause their play. They regard us with alarm, with indignation. It’s funny how they’re perfectly equipped to utterly ignore us, when that’s the whim.

Maybe we are alarming with our thick thoughts and silly limitations, the small steadfast dog on his leash, with legs like stout rapid chopsticks, our hearts which we forget to thank for beating.

On B

Tonight I walked my dog on Avenue B here in Austin, reflecting on my time on a different Avenue B, in NYC in the 90’s.

And reflecting on the day that’s ending, a mixed bag of moments mostly meh.

Late morning we met in the park for distanced outdoor yoga as planned, despite it being a bit colder and damper than we expected or would have liked. For the first time in more than ten months of Park Yoga the city landscaping team was out in full force at the time we arrived, an unpleasant synesthesia cacophony of engines and gasoline. We relocated mats and blankets to a different area, no grass more shade (nice in the summer) and regrouped. Michele didn’t have a blanket. While she surely would have liked one she didn’t bitch an inch.

I’d been out of sorts all morning and needed something new so I researched unfamiliar mudras. One jumped out at me: Brhamara, the bee mudra. I taught it and we did it along with many other things that we did and we felt what we felt, whether nothing or something or several things, and we parted ways.

In my mind I kept seeing it as B Mudra. Like a B-side, or the key of B minor.

Sometime during the two years I lived in San Francisco in the early 90’s (sandwiched by New York– what a pricey snack that now would be) there was a rare evening I spent alone, home from my temp job at a mitigation firm, happy to have space from my exhausting boyfriend. I collapsed on the couch and turned on the radio. The classical station was introducing Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

The commentator’s calm sonorous voice eased me into a state of relaxed openness. As the music started, something unusual unfolded. Solitude, my reclining posture (otherwise known as crashed out on the sofa), the strange way the announcer’s voice connected with definitely my stomach and probably my vagus nerve and signaled “no danger here” set up a sublime experience.

Have you had sublime experiences? Sure you have.

There’ve been experiences that, in the moment or right after, I’ve thought, that was sublime! But far fewer that I recall days weeks months years decades later, let alone recall as sublime.

A brief diversion, because it’s scary to describe a sublime experience. I have an acquaintance, a brilliant landscape architect, named B Jane. I’d prefer to call her a friend but too much time has passed since we last connected. The art museum was renovated a million years ago; I was in a social class that got invited to the opening. I knew several people, oh hi, oh hello, I recall exhaustion.

We climbed a steep stairway to a tiny roof deck-above-the roof deck. This was good, being outside, at night. It was cold, we were climbing. The person ahead of me wore amazing shoes and had incredible, strong, limber/sexy calves. Perhaps not a sublime experience, but clearly a memorable one; I was transfixed. When we reached the top, our eyes met, me and my friend or acquaintance B Jane. We were delighted to see one another and I told her about her shoes and her legs.

So, the Bach Mass. I guess my mother wasn’t dead yet, but the memory of that experience reminds me of reclining in pain on a different couch in a different city (this one) a year after she died, with a part-time lover who had just, that day, lost a friend to a bike accident. We mourned together yet completely apart. There was no way way for me to be present for him in his pain, no way for him to be present for me in mine. Perhaps there is a hint of something beautiful or meaningful in that but at the time it was only sad and tragic and kind of a drag.

So, Bach Mass Sublimity. Why is it hard to write about? I’ve revisited that San Francisco sofa often. I love remembering the ravishment, the surrender to something larger than myself.

Maybe the problem is that I’ve listened to the Mass again, more than a few times, searching for that feeling and never finding it.

Pandemic Yoga

The studios shut down mid-March. In the beginning of April, a couple of friends asked if I’d be willing to guide a socially-distanced outdoor yoga class for them, so I started teaching one or two mornings a week in the park near my house. It was amazing to be together in that way, at that time– such a relief. Outdoor yoga is different. The earth beneath us is uneven, sometimes sloped. There’s noise, wind, sun, rain. One time the park sprinkler system drenched us. Practicing under the canopy of an enormous live oak, I got shat on by a bird.

My friends were generous. Paula, married to a baker, supplied me with an abundance of artisan bread. Giant salty pretzels. An accomplished grill chef, she brought me a jar of smoked olives, a rack of ribs. Clayton gave me a medallion of St. Roch, the patron saint of plagues.

It felt primal, post-capitalist, both medieval and futuristic to be compensated thus. A book of poetry from one friend, a fern from another. Bags of vegetables from Michele’s farm.

Things began to change. Summer came. The world contracted, expanded, contracted, expanded. We kept going. My friends invited other friends. Neighbors noticed us with our mats and asked if they could join our practice. I reached out to a few of my favorite students from the old studio who live nearby, and some of them came too. People traveled, tentative and defiant, and missed a week or month of classes. They brought me back tokens: an ancient fossil from Lake Michigan, a bottle of Colorado wine. Someone got COVID and had to quarantine. Annette quit smoking. Birthdays came and went.

Autumn arrived. Winter looms. The election happened. Andy, who won the position of judge, joined our practice. We’ve gotten into a routine of Mondays early and Thursdays later. People mostly Venmo me cash for the classes for the classes now. I appreciate it very much, almost as much as I appreciate their presence, the opportunity to be together in a safe way, sharing energy, moving energy through our bodies.

I want to remember the charm of the barter. I’ll make a list to help me do that. I’ll forgot something, of that I’m certain, but here’s a stab.

A pedant of St. Roch/a bottle of wine/so many loaves of incredible bread/smoked olives/a rack of rib/giant pretzels/gift card for fancy cheese/Petosky stone/cash paper clipped to a poem/a Pema Chodron book/a hanging plant/a cranial sacral therapy session/a seven-day cleanse/a hakomi-acupuncture session/a gift card for Madewell jeans/a volume of Marie Howe poems/two squares of THC-laced chocolates/a nonfiction book called Why Fish Don’t Exist/tincture for immunity/bags of farm vegetables/a healing energy bracelet/a huge pile of dried sage/ love/ friendship/ money/ gratitude/support/a reason to leave my house/a purpose/companionship/clarity/hope

What if

instead of the ugly sign prohibiting swimming or climbing on the enticing rocks that make a very walkable bridge across the lagoon, there was no sign? If someone climbs on the rocks, who cares? Instead of that sign marring the scene what if there was an entity that noticed if someone entered the water, whether from the rocks or from the grassy shore, and loudly announced that there was a person in water?

If the person needed help, the voice (think Irish female Siri if you’d like) would make anyone present aware of that. If the person climbed out the voice would thank them then go quiet. If the person stayed in the water (which in this case isn’t terribly deep, though we all know it only takes four inches of water in which to drown unconscious face down) perhaps the voice could ascertain the weight of the person– or object, maybe there’s a way for the voice to tell if the thing in water is alive or not– using displacement (eureka!), and a few different scenarios could play out.

If the (living) object was under a certain weight, an alarm could sound. 911 could be called, by the voice. But the tableau to which I’m partial is one where the voice calmly explains to the bather that this is not water to bathe in. As a retention pond, its purpose is to drain and filter stormwater. The water in the pond likely contains harmful bacteria, toxic chemicals and possibly parasites. Please get out of the water now to preserve your health.

Now the problem becomes, what if the person has no health worth preserving?

The sign exists in the first place not to protect the public from drowning or becoming infested with e. coli, but to protect the property developer from lawsuits.

What might a post-capitalist legal system look like?

I Confess to Being Flippant About Bruce Jenner (though I’m not planning to apologize).

Over their usual beige dinners, my boyfriend’s teenage daughters were having an inane conversation about Kim Kardashian. Is there any other kind?

“Do you know who the original famous Kardashian was?” Chris, their father, asked no one in particular.

“Kim?” said one of the girls.

“Lawyer for Nixon?” I said.

“Lawyer for OJ,” Chris said.

“It’s his ex-wife who married Bruce Jenner, right?”

“Caitlyn Jenner,” the girls corrected me.

“Right! That happened. It’s so funny– back to the 70’s when he was considered an icon of masculinity. His picture was on Wheaties boxes!”.

“You’re supposed to say ‘her” picture,” I was told. “That’s the correct way to refer to a transgendered person even before they became outwardly trans”.

“Fine, but in the case of Bruce Jenner, whose photograph was on Wheaties boxes as a symbol of rugged masculinity, I’m going to make an exception,” I said.

I was being flippant, sitting at the counter with a bowl of green Thai fish curry that I’d made earlier. They took offense and started to clear the room.

It drives me nuts when they do that conflict-avoidance bullshit, so I got flippant about that, too: “Ooooooh a minor conflict, oh no, better run.”

Chris spent 45 minutes upstairs with them unpacking all of that while I finished my curry then penitently scrubbed the kitchen clean. The last thing Chris needs is more drama or another tangle to unravel. To my relief, when he came back down, he was amused rather than annoyed. We leashed up the dog for a long walk through the cool night and talked about other things.

Fish Publishing’s Lockdown Prize

Pleased to be included as a finalist. A little message in a bottle from Central TX floating all the way up to Dublin!

Recognition

By Abigail King

I ran into a friend at the fencing supply, a signmaker.   We crossed paths, masked, several times before realizing we didn’t just resemble ourselves, it was actually us.  

“It’s the perfect profession for a pandemic,” he said, with what these days passes for exuberance.  “I work alone, outdoors, up high.”

How many months, years will it be before I stop visualizing respiratory particles emanating from every open mouth?  Their trajectories, the pull of gravity upon them. 

The figs on our neighborhood trees are small, hard, green but changing fast.  What will the world be like the moment they ripen?   

About Ray

I suppose this project can’t be complete without a mention of the nudist at the Super 8 Motel. I was picking up an order of a Cobb salad from a sports bar on Anderson Lane. “GrubHub for Ray?” I said when I arrived.

“Ray,” the young man at the cash register snickered. This was early in my Running days, very few people wore masks, and delivery drivers were still entering restaurants to retrieve orders.

“Ray,” the young woman next him, his co-worker, repeated with a sigh.

I raised my eyebrows. “What’s the deal?”

“He’s…. a character,” the woman said.

“He always places the same order,” the guy explained, “and he never specifies no croutons/extra cheese, and he always throws a fit when the order arrives and yells at the delivery person and calls us to complain.”

“Ah!’ I said, “but you’re on to him now. So, no croutons, extra cheese, correct?”

They confirmed this. I knew the drill; I texted the customer: I’ve got your salad, no croutons, extra cheese and I’m heading your way- anything else you need? He texted back: OK thank you sounds good.

“Good luck,” the sports bar kids told me.

“I’m not afraid of anybody,” I told them back.

The sky grew dark as I drove to the motel by the side of the highway. This would be my last Run of the day. I was feeling tired but peaceful; I had made pretty good money and was still in that early phase of Running where I was delighted at having managed to finagle an income of any sort.

I’d passed the Super 8 plenty of times but obviously never had reason to stop there. I parked, checked my phone for his room number, climbed the outdoor steps to the second floor and knocked on his door.

The door cracked open, and a short skinny nervous guy with a very long ponytail, maybe around 40, peeked out suspiciously. “Hi Ray,” I said, handing him the bag from arm’s length. “Here’s your salad. Enjoy!”

“Wait,” he commanded. ” I need to check to make sure the order is correct.”

“It’s as you requested,” I said pleasantly, stepping backwards from the door to social distance as he turned into his room, door ajar. I could hear the crinkle of the bag as he opened it.

“I would have liked more cheese,” he called to me. His head returned to the door crack. He looked me over. “Still, you did better than most.” The door opened more. “How do you feel about nudity?” he asked, standing in the doorway stark naked.

I offered a benign smile. “I see you, fellow human,” I told him, then gave a nod and headed back to my car.

On the way home I phoned the sports bar. “Listen,” I said, “I’m fifty and couldn’t care less about being flashed but you can not let people step into that situation. It could have been really damaging and traumatic, even dangerous, for someone else. When you said he’s a ‘character’ were you aware that he answers the door naked?”

It was the female employee who’d picked up the phone. She swore ignorance and promised to follow up with the company so he couldn’t get orders from them again.

Of course, there’s no shortage of other sports bars in Austin…. or other delivery services.

As I pulled up to my house I was looking forward to telling the story to my boyfriend and kids; it’s crazy out there! Aren’t people wild?

But something was going on, a movie whose soundtrack makes me crazy or some interpersonal drama, I no longer remember. Something that made me slip off to walk the dog alone and ponder without discussion the mysteries of humans, others as well as myself.

Pause Button

Two weeks ago I Ran Favors for the last time. That Saturday evening, over and over, I declined “offers” to pick up and deliver orders of Chick-Fil-A to far-flung addresses around the city. I can’t do it, I decided, even as my “acceptance rate” dropped alarming in the Favor App. I’m not doing that anymore. Finally an offer popped up that I could accept: I brought a small, reasonable load of groceries to an elderly man who sat at a table on his screened porch, as I arrived, writing longhand on a legal pad. I placed the bags on his door step. “Here you go,” I called out to him. He glanced up briefly, met my eyes, gave a brief wave. What am I doing with my life, I thought, driving away from his house. I pulled into a parking lot and watched the sunset.

My dignity was beginning to suffer. I will stop this madness, I decided, to make room for something new. I want to be writing in my own notebook on my own porch, not spending as much in gas as I’m earning driving my car around mindlessly, endlessly, waiting in lines, opening and closing the door, turning on and off the engine. On and off and on and off and on and off again. What am I going to do with my one wild and precious life? Not this.

At least I will pause this, take time to write about the experience, and see what happens.

Runner Diary, May 15

It’s going to rain tomorrow, so today I toggled my vehicle from car to bike and set out southward. Even with no Favor offers, it would be good to get out on my bike.

I received one, just as I was giving up and thinking about just biking around the lake then home. A woman named Natasha wanted a certain type of bubble tea from a place on Guadalupe Street across from UT campus, The Drag, they call it.

Cost of product: $6.20, Tip: $7.10.

Later, in my car running GrubHub orders, I drove past the UT baseball stadium, bringing Thai food to a gentrified house. It was perhaps exactly two years ago that I’d been in that stadium, my only time there, taking my younger son to a baseball game. It might have been my birthday. It was late May and a very busy time for the baseball team, the end of their season. My son badly wanted to catch a ball and was well-equipped with a mitt, decent seats, and my patient, baseball-appreciating boyfriend offering advice.

Right before or right after that night I got terribly sick, for the first time in eons. It was clearly the flu, though confusing to have in May, plus I’d gotten a flu shot the winter before. In other words, I defied the odds. I lay in bed for a week, begging for limewater and chunks of pineapple. We had just moved into the house together; boxes filled rooms. Chris patiently moved them unpacked what he could, hung paintings, minded my children and brought me pineapple and specialty liquids.

Driving back through downtown today after that delivery I noticed, again, the tent compounds, some lining busy meridians, completely exposed to the elements, others with a modicum of protection due to their locations beneath overpasses. In a few hours, I knew, a storm was coming, and these tents and tent compounds looked ill-equipped to handle strong winds and torrential rain.

I wanted to warn them, tie your stuff down, move to higher ground if you can, find shelter if you’re able to. As if they didn’t know (maybe they didn’t, probably they did), but the roll of dice that would land my vehicle in the correct lane at at red light or with no cars behind me never happened. And the GrubHub app was tracking my location, noting my progress. Clients weren’t paying for detours.

I was cruising East on Cesar Chavez to pick up food from an Indian restaurant I’d never been to– maybe it’ll be a find, I thought. There was a skinny old man at the corner with a walking stick and a cardboard sign, and I was finally in the left lane, two cars back from the corner, and the light was red.

Do you like oranges, I called through my mask as I waved him over. I had three clementines in my left hand sticking out my driver’s side window.

He came over. “They’re my wife’s favorite,” said.

“OK, hang on,” I told him, scrambling to put the clementines back in their mesh sack so I could give him the whole bag.

He took it gracefully as I called out, my best to your wife. The light changed. As I drove on to the next place, I acknowledged that it was he doing me the favor.