“In the Clutches of Destiny” (Playing with Fiction on a Rainy Afternoon)


I sit here in Starbucks. Mani sits across the table from me. We brought our laptops, just for a change of scenery. I remember coming here on my lunch break from work when I was still at Hampshire. I’d get a drink and smoke a clove (or two). I’d squeeze in reading new posts in my writing group, which was still a side gig.

Back in the days of moonlighting, I would’ve done anything to sit in a coffee shop at 3:30pm on a Wednesday with my wife, each of us writing. Now that I’m here, I don’t take for granted that this is my reality. Also now that I’m here, I’m looking out the window and wondering what to write about. When you’re not writing something — a specific essay, a memoir, something where you know basically what you’re plugging away at — it can be very difficult to write anything.  This is one of the reasons I like prompts when it comes to just getting started. A prompt is nothing more or less than a portal — a way in. From there, anything can happen.

Today, though, I have no prompt. I have only this moment. I notice the voice in my head poo-poohing me, telling me there’s nothing the world needs to hear about the ubiquitous comings and goings of Starbucks customers. Behind me, a middle-aged woman sits with an elderly man in a wheelchair. I hear him talking, his voice low and growling. I’ve seen them here before. I imagine that she is his full-time caregiver. I wonder how long they have known each other. Is he of sound mind? Does she have a family of her own?

Last night at Kirtan, which we go to most Tuesday evenings, a young woman caught my eye. She looked about Aviva’s age, and I had never seen her there before. She arrived with an older man who’s a regular. As we chanted, she sat against a wall, legs outstretched, ankles crossed. She didn’t sing.

Her father — the man I imagined as her father — got up to stretch occasionally, and participated wholeheartedly in the singing. In my head, they’d had a rough go of things. He’d lost custody and struggled with addiction. She’d refused to see him. After he got out of rehab, they began again — tentatively, as if one of them or the precarious relationship could easily break.

He had rediscovered Kirtan in rehab from a fellow addict who chanted every day in the common area. Back in the 70s, he’d criss-crossed the country following Ram Dass, going to as many talks as he could. Our protagonist  knew he was in the presence of something, someone, truly groovy. He could feel the reverberations of the Maharajji’s teachings in his soul. He could also feel the hands of the many groovy women he met on the road all over his body and the drugs in his veins.

He swore he’d never have kids, to protect the planet from its groaning population. He swore he’d never settle down with one woman, either. Why choose when there were whole fields of wildflowers? That was what he told himself. But the traveling grew tiresome and by the early 80s, he was ready for something he’d never dreamed of wanting: Stability.

He was only 20, but the urge to stay in one place for a while suddenly felt like the most enlightening thing in the world. He would shave his beard, get a suit jacket and tie, and go back to school. He’d rent an apartment and hold down a job at the local typewriter repair shop. He’d meditate every morning for two hours and every night for two more. He’d quit drinking and everything else except pot, which he rationalized didn’t really count as a drug.

For twenty-five years, our friend did quite well. He established himself as a landscape architect with his own small practice. He bought an 1850s Victorian and spent his spare time fixing it up, one room at a time. He became a runner and chose a different city marathon every year. The sacred books of his wild youth sat on a bookshelf next to contemporary fiction and mystical poetry, and he remained an avid reader. By all accounts, he was a man with a successful life.

In 2001, he met L. He saw her at the spot where he always went at 11:45 for an early lunch (he was such an early riser that he was always ready for another meal before noon). He was such a regular that folks referred to him as the Mayor. He knew everyone by name, and was the first to notice any changes — be they to the menu, among customers, or in the landscaping out front. In the summer, window boxes spilled out pansies; morning glories climbed up alongside the door, and two or three outdoor tables graced the sidewalk. By noon, these seats were always taken.

L. sat in one of the deep wooden booths, clearly not realizing that these were unofficially reserved for the stay-at-home moms who came with passels of toddlers and babies in backpacks.  Strollers blocked the stairs to the bathroom downstairs. The place became mayhem for about 50 minutes each day, and clearly L. was from somewhere else and had no idea what chaos was imminent.

He stole glances of her as she sipped her rosemary lemonade. Her long hair was tied up in a heap on top of her head. She had a look that was so familiar to him, he couldn’t stop looking over. Had they met? It seemed unlikely, given what he guessed was a significant age difference. She didn’t look more than 25. He’d been celibate for so long and was so accustomed to his lifestyle that the surge of sexual energy that shot through him caught him completely off-guard.

In the clutches of something he’d later come to see as destiny…

* * *

Well, I didn’t see THAT coming! And I legit made myself laugh out loud with that last bit.

Fiction is fun. I’m not a fiction writer, but every now and then I’ll get on a roll. Part of why I enjoy it is because I have absolutely zero stake in being any good at it. Is this a story you want to keep reading? If yes, I’ll tackle the next installment soon.

Here’s to writing in coffee shops, playing outside of our comfort zones, and seeing what happens.

Walking on Water and Writing as Dowsing

Photo: Sarah Benoit Weir

Photo: Sarah Benoit Weir

When I was a kid, my friend C. from Buffalo moved to a small Boston suburb right around the time my family moved to Western Massachusetts. Like any moment of profound change, my memories from that first year are densely concentrated, like a nebula; I go to touch one and my hand moves right through its gases and vapors. But sometimes, a word will become available, something more solid to grab hold of.

“Aqueduct” is one of those words, from 1983 or ’84. C. lived on a pretty, quiet street with her mom and older brother. Her mom and my mom were pregnant with us at the same time, and there is a famous-in-our-family photo of me and C., age three or so, looking miniature in a giant armchair, each of us holding a book and looking seriously at the camera.

Our move to Massachusetts meant a somewhat rural existence overtook an urban one. It was disorienting to say the least, and I felt lonely in my new fifth grade class. On a visit to see C. and her family in the eastern part of the state, I remember just two things: Her brother had painted the walls of his room black, and I learned a new word.

Down the street from their house — I think it was a dead-end — was an aqueduct. I’d never heard of an aqueduct and had no idea what it meant. C. explained to me that there was water under the ground. You’d think that at age nine or ten, I would have known this already, and maybe I did. But there was something about naming it, and her description — vague and mysterious — that lit my imagination.

I tried to picture it, this water. Was it flowing, river-like? Was it a lake, so many feet under? We were actually *walking* on water, I thought to myself, as we crossed the field.

Deep underground places where water flows freely. No wonder the notion appealed to me; even then I was looking to tap something inside of myself. My dowsing rods were my voice and my pen: I literally sang and wrote, sometimes bringing myself to tears whose source I couldn’t name but that I knew had to do with God and my deepest self — perhaps one and the same.

– – – – –

This morning, I looked up the definition of “aqueduct,” and saw that for more than thirty years, I’ve been misunderstanding this word. From Websters:

“a conduit or artificial channel for conducting water from a distance, usually by means of gravity”

or

“a bridgelike structure that carries a water conduit or canal across a valley or over a river.”

It turns out that all those years ago, C. and I were not walking on water after all, at least not in the way I’d so vividly imagined it. Yes, there was water beneath us, but the aqueduct itself was created not by nature or mystery but by a human feat of engineering. The aqueduct was not below ground, but above it! And just like that, “aqueduct” loses some of its former cachet.

What this newly clarified definition doesn’t change though, is the quest. The way writing remains a form of listening for something inaudible; just as you’d hold a divining rod in your hands to find untapped wellsprings, a pen moving silently over paper is feeling its way to some source, something that makes it vibrate with truth. You know when you’ve touched it, for something in you has found sustenance.

And in this way, maybe the writing is in fact an aqueduct — a container, a bridge to channel and cross that which flows beneath the surface, unseen and unguided.

When we write, we find a way to guide the invisible upward, where we can drink from it and bathe in it. Your words, your memories, your underground springs — these are precious resources. May they be of use, to you and to the world.