Mudflat

I have normalized the absence of an occasional sharp pain, located ambiguously between my throat and lower ribcage, for some time now. While this pain may not manifest the same in others, this is how it feels to me: I draw myself into myself, feeling the cracks form slowly enough to agonize, quickly enough to feel acute, along a wriggling line between two points on my upper torso. I lay there, often immobile, showing myself what love I can find within my being, telling myself that it’s okay to feel this way, telling myself that I must feel this way in order to remain healthy.

I often go years without experiencing this cracking; I remain conspicuously whole for these stretches, assuring myself that yes, it is healthy to abstain from crying dry tears, healthy to feel just fine. To some degree, I prefer this manner of being: a method of existence trained for years as a matter of practicality. There is a reason I remain this way for years at a time.

A few weeks ago, an exceptionally warm, dry wind blew over Oregon. While we are no strangers to wildfire, this was an unusual occurrence, undoubtedly caused or exacerbated by our increasingly unhealthy planet, and flames erupted across the western half of the state–the half that most think of when they think of Oregon: wet, temperate. These fires continue to blaze as I write from my apartment in Texas, and while it would be ridiculous to assert that there is any connection at all between the pain of my home state and my emotional pilgrimage, I do feel some kind of spiritual attachment to my homeland. I sympathize with the feeling of years of underbrush being rooted out by a sudden act of natural violence, a result of years of management and irresponsible guardianship.

This metaphor ends where another begins. While I’m certain that the flames ravaging the communities I grew up knowing are irrevocable evils exacerbated by the limitations of human prescience, I am not so sure when it comes to the wounds exposing themselves on my chest; these wounds more closely resemble the cracked clay of summer mudflats, which still support teams of life. They return naturally to this state cyclically, perhaps as my emotional body will. We are in the fledgling stages of adulthood, and the cycles that appear on the span of years have yet to be affirmed as more than isolated events of minor trauma.

The cracks on my lips that appeared a few days ago look like the ant ravines in the clay. The openings between the vague spots on my torso look the same. The gashes that appear in the forests of my homeland bear some resemblance. All of these things heal, but which are cyclical? Which are unsustainable? Which support new life, and which prevent it from taking root? Will my topsoil run off with the next major rain, as it will in the counties that will never be the same in my lifetime?

Too many questions. Too much nuance. Too few answers to create a satisfying conclusion. I am thankful for this opportunity to feel more deeply–my unending steadiness has been a frequent source of frustration–but it does force me to question my truths.

Apologies. Stay well as anyone does.

Siren

Although I don’t study religion as much as I used to, my days in Bible study left me with an important lesson from Matthew chapter six:

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (NIV)

I understand that many of you might not be religious, and I must admit: I don’t consider myself a Bible-thumper either, but this idea, the one of virtue in good deeds done in secret, is not unique to Christianity. Before that, though, I want to point out a certain hypocrisy that has been eating at me for a while. Many use their religious background or lack thereof as a tool to assert their moral authority, and a common refrain is: “If someone only does good as a way to seek the approval of a God, that deed is only done selfishly.” I agree with this sentiment, of course, but many of those who use that singular piece of logic then choose to shout their heroics from the rooftops–on social media, in everyday conversations, in posed photos. If a good deed is leveraged to gain the approval of one’s peers, how is this different from a Christian’s utilization of deeds to gain entry to Heaven? There is no difference, and so I assert that the only good deeds are the ones done quietly. The teachings of Buddhist master Xuyun (or “Empty Cloud”) touch on this as well, and while I cannot include all of his beautiful prose here, I will include a short excerpt that gets his point across. I recommend you read pages seven and eight of this document if you wish for more exposition.

Perform a good deed in silence and anonymity! Forget about rejoicing. A
good deed should have a very short life, and once dead, should be quickly buried.
Let it rest in peace. Don’t keep trying to resuscitate it. Too often, we try to turn
a good deed into a ghost that haunts people, that keeps reminding them of our
wonderful service – just in case they start to forget.

Given recent events, I have struggled with my tendency to stay silent. So deeply-rooted is my fear of virtue signaling that I have failed to speak up when maybe I should be, but at what point do I, a white ruralite teaching in a title one school, become performative in my trumpeting of good morals? At what point do I stop amplifying the voices of the people unheard and begin to sing loudly over them? It is not my place to say, and I suspect most folks, folks who are well-intentioned, as I am, have different answers for me. I have settled, for now, in continuing to work behind the scenes, chirping up with a “remember to listen to supressed voices!” when relevant, but I understand why many would see this as not enough. I agree, and I ask for forgiveness–I’m still trying to learn.

As a fairly opinionated person, I have, on many occasions, began to type something to share my thoughts on the protests, on the history of oppression that people of color face, on the intersectionality of issues of race and climate and class, but in recent weeks, I have stopped myself. My opinions don’t matter, and if you, the reader, are white, I’m afraid yours don’t either: We are not the affected group. We are not entitled to tell black folks how to best share their experiences, how to demand reform, how to protest: Ultimately, we don’t know anything. We don’t know what has been tried. We don’t know what it feels like to go unheard for generations. The male-presenting among us don’t know what it feels like to be targeted as victims of violent crime simply because of the way we look.

So, this is part of my compromise with myself: This is my way of saying “Yes, I support you.” to whoever needs supporting. Right now, that is the black community. Today I lay down my own opinions and instead choose to direct attention to the many valid voices speaking; I feel my own voice will only serve as a sweet song, luring other white folks to the waters of guiltless complacency, a tide of “I earned my allyship today.”

If this is inadequate, I apologize. Know that I will continue to do my best–you just won’t hear about it.

All lives can’t matter until black ones do.

Dogprint

I just came in from taking out the small mound of cardboard that had been accumulating in my apartment for some time. It’s a cool night, but pleasantly so–the sun has been down for a few hours, and I’m coming off of the slight buzz I got from sipping away half a bottle of Oregon wine; by all means, there’s nothing at all keeping me from enjoying the short walk down the road to the bins.

I saw this task as a chore, regardless, but I’m struggling with why. While I’d happily wipe the obligations of the home from my task list if I had the opportunity, there are few that I find truly unpleasant. In truth, I often go for walks of my own volition.

Regardless, I found myself pausing at the dumpster on the corner. I could have easily thrown the cardboard away at that point, cutting my time spent outside in half, without any retribution. I could have tossed them in, headed back inside, and continued with my evening as normal. I didn’t, though. I mentally slapped myself on the wrist and walked the extra 100 feet to the proper bins.

While I was out there, I saw some dogprints in the mud. Not the deep, satisfying mud that dirties cars, that kids like to play in, but the shallow silt washed down from the asphalt road above my apartment complex. Just two small prints, maybe made by the Yorkshire terrier I’ve seen a few times. It’s been some time since it rained, though, so they must’ve been there for days, untouched. The dog moved on, but the mark on the world remains.

I wonder if choosing those easier options are like that. I wonder if those things accumulate in the brain, layering, becoming all that you can see. I wonder how often it rains in there.

Goathead

Today marks one month without writing anything of substance, and this is my breaking the fast. I’ve thought on more than one occasion what it means to be called a writer, and I’ve come up with a rough sketch. It’s a bit like when an artist begins to draft out the basic geometry and composition of their art: We lack detail, but a resemblance to the final product exists.

My first draft, then: A writer is one who cannot stop writing.

For whatever reason, it’s gotten into my head and my heart that the only appropriate response to emotionally volatile circumstance is to sit down and write. For the past month, I have, on many occasions, felt the urge to sit down and allow myself room to breathe air unclouded by smoke. With my recent move, though, this has proven difficult, and I’ve been extraordinarily lazy. Now that I am settled, hopefully we can explore these thoughts together in a way that is both productive for me and entertaining for you.

Anyway, the topic that left me longing for the keyboard at 2:30am: Loving someone who doesn’t exist.

We all, in one way or another, love someone who does not, has not, and/or will not exist. The form may change from case to case, but the result is often the same — a unique brand of unrequited love. This specific type of unrequited love is similar in function to the everyday, I-love-the-most-popular-girl-in-school type of love in that it leaves the owner, the lover, lost. Inside of us we have a kind of burn that refuses to heal, cannot be salved, and throbs with pain each and every time we nearly forget about it. When one loves another, and that love is not returned, it can result in a romantic nihilism that fractures one’s sense of self-worth, meaning, and emotional wellbeing. What makes our special brand unique is that we can remain disconnected from the reality of our futile love indefinitely. While love for the girl next door may fade with time, or with a realization that she’s a bit rude, or when she gets engaged, there’s little to keep us away from the ghosts of our minds. Men (and I can only speak from a straight man’s perspective) may pine for the image of a particular woman for years with the hope that one day she might open her eyes and see him. To be seen, not even loved, is among the greatest of hopes for the unrequited lover.

When I was a young teen, maybe thirteen or fourteen, I had a dream about a woman who I had never met. She had long, strawberry blonde hair, glasses, and braces. In a phrase: The type of girl thirteen-year-old me idolized. In this dream, the girl and I played in the snow, had a few meals together, and fell in love. From my perspective, I spent days with this dream girl. I can still smell the pine wood of the cabin we stayed in, and feel her cold, dry hand in mine.

That was nearly a decade ago.

This woman only existed for a moment, and only in my head, and yet I remember her as I sit here now. For weeks afterward (and this may have been symptomatic of other problems that middleschoolers go through) I was lovesick. I knew I could never see her again, but I fell asleep each night yearning for another dream with her. I would spend every chance I could sleeping, just on the off chance I could catch her again. With childish hope that she could possibly be real, I pursued her. The girl from a dream. The shadow of a real person. An object created by my subconscious. It took a toll on my health, my schoolwork, and my social life.

It can be funny to look back on how silly we were as children, but old habits die hard. While I doubt many of us chase literal dream women, how many of us can honestly say we’ve never had a celebrity crush? Or fantasized about an ex from years past? Or imagined a life with the person standing behind us at the grocery store?

These people, and the qualities thereof, are fiction. Celebrities are painted in limelight, our exes change and evolve as normal people do, and the person standing behind us in the grocery store is just trying to get a few eggs for an omelette that could use a bit more salt.

To love these people, as we do, is to deny the reality of the truly great people around us. When we choose fiction over fact, we hurt ourselves and deny others the opportunity to love us. If we are preoccupied with dreams, we can never see them realized.

Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women touches on a similar topic. After a woman’s death, her husband contacts our narrator, an old boyfriend, to inform him of the news. The narrator of this story hadn’t thought of the woman in years, and had moved onto a new life. The man the woman once knew was, in a way, dead, yet we can infer that she carried some amount of love, care, or thought of him to the grave. He was important enough to her, after all, that her husband felt it necessary to call.

Don’t carry love for the dead to the grave. It can only bring hurt, and we need all the love we can muster for the people around us. The people who still exist. Pull the goatheads from the soles of your shoes and toss them by the roadside.

Decay

Yesterday, I read an article on how quickly nature will take over civilization once we’re gone. The speed with which we’re forgotten is astonishing, and it seems that gravity and decay are the tools of erasure. The article was a summary of The World Without Us, within which the author, Alan Weisman, says “If you want to destroy a barn, cut an eighteen-inch-square hole in the roof. Then stand back.”

We are now in the first days of Fall, and the Eastern Oregonian mornings are showing it. As I drank my coffee and began my work this morning, I felt the season enter my lungs. The Blue Mountains surrounding the Grande Ronde Valley stared down with icy silence, rather than heat-induced fatigue. I’m staying at Hot Lake Springs, a historical site between Union and La Grande, and the stresses of time are on my mind. I’ve seen the building in a completely unlivable state — when my family first came to the property, the building was roofless, and on the verge of collapse. A layer of bird refuse, rotten leaves, and the building’s broken walls and ceilings covered every surface. It was locked in the season of Fall, a season of decay and decline, on a semi-permanent basis. With far more than an “eighteen-inch-square hole in the roof,” the building was falling down whether we chose to stand back or not; it would prove this later, even after my family’s repairs and restoration efforts, when the entire western wing would fall down. In spite of this, we were able to, with enough duct tape and not a small amount of help, make the place livable (and even nice) for some time. Even now it’s a comfortable, but we can see in some places that nature is trying to reaffirm its position here. If we were to abandon it again, I can’t help but wonder: How long might it take to return to disrepair? I think not long.

Likewise, a certain amount of maintenance is necessary in our lives to maintain some semblance of stability. Without this maintenance the vicissitudes of life leak in through the holes in our ceilings. Decay sets in, and gravity can tear us down. For me, this maintenance is writing. For others, it may be running, or alcohol, or being a great parent. Not all methods of maintenance are equally effective, though: Where expressing one’s self in music is akin to replacing the hardwood floor, smoking is patching it and forgetting it was ever whole. Running is winterizing, and escapism is performing triage on the damage as cold sets in. A trend to notice, here, is that the healthy methods of maintenance are often accompanied by a passion with which they are pursued. The self-identified runner has a far more meaningful connection with their self-care than the externally-identified alcoholic. This is not to say that I have exclusively healthy coping mechanisms, but rather to encourage folks to find a passion of some kind. The passionate person is much more likely to maintain health in all aspects of life — this study touches on the impact passion has on psychological health, which in turn has emotional, spiritual, and physical effects. This is no closely-guarded secret of the world of healthcare; it’s an exercise in common sense and introspection.

The passion of my family not only held them together, but helped bring back this property from the dead. The bronze sculpture of my grandfather, a direct, physical manifestation of his passion for art and history, will be recognizable for 10,200,000 years. In this way, he has shaken off the effects of decay for some time. I hope to do the same.

Listen

There’s a bit of wisdom regarding the sea: “If the ocean disappears, don’t go looking for it.” This is referring to the phenomena in which a hurricane’s low pressure sucks the water away from the coastline. I read somewhere that this is essentially “the ocean rearing up to kick us in the ass.”

This bit of wisdom is not just a meteorological observation, though. There often comes a time in which the water disappears, even from directly beneath our feet, and we almost always go looking for it. If the water receded while I was hanging out on the beach, my feet in the warm sand, a cold Corona in hand, I would certainly try to figure out what happened, and this is natural — we were enjoying the water. We want to hold onto it.

This isn’t right, though, and if we could end up caught in a hurricane if we aren’t careful. The ocean’s recession is the universe’s way of saying “Hey, this isn’t the place to be. Get out of here.” The universe speaks to us in this way every day, but we have a nasty habit of plugging our ears.

Recently, I started to listen, and I found that all of my personal hurricanes were a direct result of me looking for the water. Heartbreak as a result of forcing a relationship. Financial issues and general discontent as a result of hanging on to a poor professional decision (which was made, again, because I wasn’t listening.)

Last night, as I was planning my budget for the coming months, I found that it was going to be nearly impossible to take the classes I want and need with my current job. I was only going to be able to work one half-day each week, which wasn’t going to pay the rent. So I looked at some options: Drop a class that I’m passionate about, get a second job, or find additional loans. None of these options sounded all that attractive, so I began to feel some anxiety about leaving my old position at the university. Thoughts began racing, and an “easy” year suddenly turned into an impossible one. I put myself to bed, though, and hopped online. I happened across a posting on the same website that led me to the job I’ll be in next year, and things clicked.

“Online EFL Teacher”

I applied immediately. Within 30 minutes, I was in an interview. Fifteen minutes after that, I had a job offer. Five minutes later, I accepted.

While these rapid changes are uncomfortable, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. Learning to let go, to hear the universe’s voice, and to accept opportunities as they come has helped me find the man I want to be.

Wind

I miss you. I mean, I get that you’re mostly still around, and I am too, but you can’t deny that a distance, whether physical or emotional, has come between us. We might say “Oh, we should catch up sometime!” or “Sorry I’ve been out of it — work has just really been a mess recently,” then make a half-assed attempt to reconnect, but we know we’re just stalling for a time when we can pass each other on the street without a wave or a smile. The winds of time, for whatever reason, have decided to blow us in different directions. Fighting it is possible, but neither of us want it bad enough to make the discomfort and inconvenience worth it. If we did, we wouldn’t be here. But please, don’t feel bad; I understand. It’s okay to want something else. Something easier. Something happier. I use the word “we” for a reason.
Love, and I do love you for the most part, isn’t always enough. It is completely reasonable, then, to say “I miss you” from time to time without making an effort to change. People are, in general, a few tiptoed steps away from being overwhelmed with grief, and it is because I love you that I don’t want you to teeter closer to that edge: even if that means we’ll remain apart.
I do wish, though, that you could see the man that I’ve become. The jury is still out on whether or not you’d be proud, but think a seed of hope that you’ll become a part of my life again still lives inside me. Maybe making the effort would become worth it again. Maybe just knowing would bring a sense of peace. Maybe it would hurt. I’m not sure.
And I want to know you, too! One month or 20 years is a long time, and I imagine you’ve learned just as much as I have. Maybe you’re a new person, as I am, or maybe you’re the same person I loved back then. Either way, I’m sure it’d be good to connect again.
I know you’re busy, though, so I’ll end this here. If you feel like this is for you, you’re probably right — you’d know better than me. My head isn’t sure who you are, but my gut is telling me that this needs to be said. Let me know if the wind begins to sing differently.

Buzz

Tonight I’m sitting on my grandparents’ porch in Chandler, AZ, listening to the chirping of insects and occasionally swatting them away from my face. The air is gritty and dry — you can smell that the ocean is a million miles away. It is nearly midnight and 94 degrees. I love it.

Compared to Boston, Chandler (just outside of Phoenix) is a goddamn vacation resort. There’s plenty of space to move around, it’s clean and quiet, and I’m not so damn sticky all the time. But that’s not why I’m typing this: I’m typing this to clear the clutter. To swipe away the proverbial cobwebs, abuzz with the same bugs harrying my screen, covering the surface of an important topic of conversation. That topic is, of course, graduation.

Graduation is something that haunts me in the same way that the ghost of a kind, beautiful woman might; she’s nice to have around, but there’s an inherently perturbing nature to her that can’t be forgotten or pushed aside. Whenever I spend more than a quiet moment contemplating the near future (I’m outta here in well under a year!), my hairs split and the beer grows warm in my hand. In other words: I’m annoyed and uncomfortable. I’ve spent the last three years becoming a new man in a place I love. The University of Oregon, and Eugene by extension, has my heart. I’ve had a number of incredible jobs with an even greater number of wonderful people. I’ve become a teacher. A supervisor. A romantic partner. A support network. I’ve found all of those things for myself. So, when I think of leaving, it’s with no small amount of heartbreak that I know I must find the next stone on the path. Stagnant water has a bad reputation for a reason, you know. It’ll make you sick.

So, more like a creek and less like a pond, I consider the pull of gravity. Gravity has a voice, too. Like the wind’s whispers, or the trees’ rustling, or the insects’ buzzing, gravity can speak, and it says this: “Grow more. The man you are is not the man you can be.”

And like that, I’ve decided: I will be growing next year. Probably even more than I have in the past three. Maybe more than I ever will again. Next year, I will be moving to East Asia to teach English as a foreign language. I use the broad metric of “East Asia” not because these plans are inconcrete, but because I am open to possibility. I’ve been interviewing for jobs in China (Dalian, Tianjin, and Qingdao more specifically) for the past week or so, and have a number of interviews coming in the next few days. I realize, though, that there’s high demand and a big world; I’ve looked at opportunities in Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand as well, and who’s to say those won’t pan out?

In any case, I’ll write more on this later. For now, I’m tired, and the cobwebs are (mostly) taken care of. The buzzing has stopped.

What’s in a Name?

This’ll be short, but I want to get something down. A mission statement, I guess.

I am at a time in my life when a lot of decisions are being made. Things move so quickly, sometimes, that I make the choices I do just for the sake of having it done — which often makes me feel as though I’m holding life at an arm’s length.

I want to be honest with myself and the folks around me, and that means more than just not lying. It means understanding the “why” behind what I do and communicating that. Asking “why?” sucks. It’s uncomfortable. It gives me a headache. But it keeps me straight-up.

So: Why Con?

If you’re reading this, I assume you know that, for most of my life, I went by “Conner.” Conner is a fine name, and even if I never particularly liked it, it’s uncommon enough that I rarely had any name confusion. At the beginning of last summer, my first summer working for the Harvard Pre-College program, I spent some time thinking and decided to introduce myself as “Con” for the first time. I did this on a whim, more or less, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.

I am, truly, an entirely different person than who I was before college. Now, with the end of my undergraduate experience within sight, I have been forced to think about my identities more than ever before. My whiteness, my maleness, and my able-bodiedness are, as always, present, but beyond that: What do I wish to accomplish with my life? Who do I want to be in the lives of others? What makes me happy?

The answers to these questions are not apparent, but what is apparent is this: The answers are far different than what they were four years ago. They are far different than Conner’s answers. I am Con, and I am learning more about this new name every day. I want to write here so that you can learn with me, so I can take ownership of my life, and so we can be closer.