I rarely celebrate my birthday, so instead I get quiet. On the actual date in 2019, my dearest friend took me to see Eric Clapton with neither of us thinking that might be the last live concert for either of us. Over the years, I’ve made it a Zen exercise to not mention it. I’m pleased when no one mentions it to me.
However, I ran my mouth one time too many and one of my coworkers knows that date and now responds to it. One of her nephews shares the same birthday, so in her mind he and I are filed together. Part of my cynicism about Birthdays is it feels compulsorily transactional. One has to do something, give or respond. That artifice, that blind compulsion is something I try to avoid. I hate doing it for others and its a fair trade with it not being done for me.
Friday I went to lunch, and when I came back, I saw my coworker in the lobby at the elevator bank, spitting fire about her Food Delivery. She rolled her eyes and I gave permission in our elevator ride for her to cuss, as it seemed she wanted to explode and strip the spine out of someone in the street. She vented. We got back to the office and she jumped back on the phone with her driver, her voice heated and coming to a rapid boil. She left the office again, asking another co-worker to catch her next call. Eventually she stormed back into the office, bag crinkling loudly, got back on the phone ready to speak to Your Manager and Right Now and go to Corporate, if necessary. Her voice code-switched to maximum, Enraged Over Unacceptable Behavior.
And while she was on hold being transferred up the command chain, she stood up and stomped heavily over to my desk, thrusting towards me a box of cupcakes, her eyes laser-drilling the floor, her temples hot bolted. “Happy Birthday.” She insisted. Then stomped back to her desk phone to complain about a driver who Did Not Follow Instructions and left food on a bench outside the building among other unprofessional things.
I had the red velvet cupcakes I’d been fantasizing about all week and was now afraid to eat them. Then, after all her effort, afraid not to.
I couldn’t ‘thank her’ because it would be bringing up old sh*t.
An hour or so later after pacing back and forth between the lobby and the office, “I lost $35,” she said. “Oh well!” A good deed quickly, rightfully and thoroughly punished. She didn’t announce losing cash to me, I heard her say it to another coworker to the other side of the room. I nearly stood up and gave her $40 I didn’t need in my wallet, and couldn’t do that either as there’s no version of this story where she would accept money from me right then.
Ripped nearly down the entire seam, the bag was too torn to use, though she still gave it to me, part of the package. I folded it quietly into the trash then wrapped the box with giant rubber bands to carry it from the top when I sprinted to the bus station. It was a true gift to me that next morning at breakfast: a dozen red velvet cupcakes crowned with cream cheese and gently sprinkled. I made tea.
Over the last couple of months, writing has been a struggle. I’ve had the time, even at work. But nothing moved me and I felt creatively numb. Even trying to blog on this site felt impossible. At that point, it becomes a waiting game. Fishing. I read, I weakly journaled. I meditated. Then finally, something nibbled. I saw something. A memory squiggled. In my memory, I heard the clothesline in the backyard of the home where I grew up being pulled.
I have not heard that specific sound in more than 25 years. A lost sound! I haven’t touched a clothesline in 25 years. Have you? People sometimes ask, how do you write a poem? Here’s how.
I sat with a pencil and wrote everything I could remember about the clothesline in my backyard. Via memory, I was happy to be there. Every image I could recall, not just the sound; the days when a rain would surprise us and my mom would rush to snatch sheets off the line. The different porches we had over the years. As a kid playing in the backyard, once I dried my dirty hands on a towel hanging out to dry above me– and that towel was given back to me pretty quick. The line was long, going over the garage out back. It hovered above the fruit trees and I could see it from the bus when I was coming home and know immediately who, if anybody, was home.
I wrote two pages and stopped. then 2-3 days later, typed them at work. Two days after that, I printed my notes and hand wrote those notes again, this time attempting to arrange a specific order for lines and stanzas. I hand wrote because I wanted to really look back and remember as much as I could. I hand wrote them because I wanted to feel the words I was choosing. My fingers are like jackhammers on a keyboard. I need to slow down and feel the language. So, where do I start, what’s important to me, what must I say?
After finding a I a solid order, I wrote the poem out again, leaving it raw. Sitting at work I Googled words and concepts I didn’t know. The kind of knot my father used to secure the clothes line to the back porch, for example. What kind of wood is a clothespin comprised of?
I’m still working on it. In a few more days, I will pull out lines and re-arrange what’s left and search for an ending. If it sounds like (psychic) surgery, it is.
My birthday treated me beautifully. At the mailbox, I’d been sent a check I’d forgotten was owed me. I watched a wonderful documentary called Mr. Soul! about producer Ellis Haizlip. Had some excellent Hawaiian BBQ that, like my coworkers cupcakes, was also almost mis-delivered two blocks away. But that night, when the power in my building went out, while sitting helpless in the dark on the couch, I actually felt full and happy.
One Reply to “A Lost Sound”
james! love your ‘voice’! wondering about your pause in writing, sounded like a veil being hung in front of your memory stream.
such lovely writing on your way to a poem. lotsa excavation on the way there… i love the mushroom cloud rising up out of the sound of the clothesline! brothapoet, give yourself a ‘james cagney hug’! nobody i know hugs like you and you deserve at least one for your birthday! abrazo npaZ