I became a writer in the middle of the night. Waking suddenly at two am, nothing particularly stirring in my brain or mounting on the list of things to do, I found myself in aware of the little bit of light in the darkness. Awake. For no real reason. My brother had bought me a transistor radio when I was 13; it had red case and tiny holes over the speakers. I kept it under my pillow and when I found myself awake, I pulled it out and found WLS a station in Chicago. In college I understood broadcast waves and how WLS became audible in rural southwest Pennsylvania. But at 13 reaching Chicago radio felt like some supernatural event. The DJ, Brother John, had the LOVE show, and he played upbeat rock and folk music and talked about peace, love and brotherhood. His voice was soft, inspirational and messaged a great embrace. My Catholic girl life was fading and the peace and love philosophy was a lateral move.
In my room my sisters slept in their beds unaware that I lay on my side, ear pressed against the tiny transistor speaker, filling my head with ideas that felt lofty and universal. I wasn’t bothered by the restlessness of these wakeful nights. They were routine. Brother John and I were clandestine in our meetings.
As I listened, that icky dissatisfaction of adolescence was elucidated: I was different, misunderstood, awkward and solemn. Clearly all the right elements to push me toward writing poems. In that darkness, lightened only by the lampposts through the window, I started writing those anxious verses in a little blue diary I kept in the shelves above my bed. Actually my abyss writing had nothing to do with unrequited love or social alienation—I wrote about my grandmother dying, my father’s being away from his home country for years; my mother’s hands and their sturdiness. My body pressed into the wall under the shelves, I spun the pen from my father’s store along those light blue lines, “She gasps her husband’s death between her ribs.”
Weirdly in the daytime, I never returned to the poems, to see what they had to offer or even to claim ownership of them. Like Brother John, Chicago and WLS, they were night secrets.
It’s two, twenty-three in the morning now. I slept for about 3 hours and then woke up crisp and alert. I'm in the study because I’ve had a cold that I didn’t want to spread, so I'm close to books and computers. I'm playing Roy Hargrove on my IPAD, answering email, playing word games as ways of lulling myself back to sleep for the few hours I have before my 4:30 am wake up. But nothing is soothing me, giving me the fluttering eyelids. Following my own good sense, I give into being awake. Make the time worthwhile—read a book, read some of my book, post good news about a friend’s book. The impulse to write comes on more gradually than it did when I was adolescent. I am writing a novel, I have this blog. I write weekly to my father.
The room has lots of little lights: the LED on the digital box, the router and modem, a phone recharging, the air cleaner, some moon through the blinds; the light of this computer screen. They flash at different rhythms as I consider my subjects: 1. Sitting a hotel in Miami hotel having breakfast with Willie Perdomo, both of us occasionally looking out the window at the pool, where, at different times, two different swimmers did laps. Both of them had no arms—they kicked gently from one end to the other. When they emerged, their chests were narrow and ended at the shoulder. They were not in the pool together. Did they know each other or was this a coincidence? Had they ever met? We didn’t stare because we both knew what it was like to be framed by someone’s lens of curiosity, to have the attention to the parts of us that don’t match everyone else. However, two? Isn’t that kind of random?
Subject two: the street that is adjacent to mine, the one I follow to go to work is four blocks long. Now, in February, the trees that line the sidewalk are barren—they are the kinds of trees where the branches all reach upward like a tulip. Without the leaves many nests are visible, all built about halfway up the branches close to the trunk. I see about eight of them. Whether they are occupied or not, I can’t tell in passing. But the visibility reminds me there is life in these trees, families that are not seen most of the year, living and working and sleeping and feeding—one after another—the upper east side of Bird City. When the leaves are back, I’ll try to remember them.
I think a lot about the birds who inhabit the yard, who dance around in a feeding frenzy, from one red blossom to the next. The flowering tree just outside the dining room window attracts hummingbirds and we catch them in the corner of our eyes while we eat dinner. Either of us could be engaged in conversation, but our sight is out the window, trained on the spin of the wings. I worry about wires, and wireless, rays that we are buzzing the air with, cables above and below, sonar. Even starting my car in the morning, I try not to idle too long. It can’t be good for these birds. Or people.
Topic Three: Today a machine will read my body. It will divine the content of tissue, the health of glands. I’ll be laid on the slab, static. Not a person but a piece of evidence. I’ve done this before and nothing about it is comforting, although I know the results will be. The idea that I am turned inside out and autopsied in life smacks of wizardry—a meddling in the secret chambers. It’s necessary, I know, because like the birds, I was exposed to something at one time. What about their little throats? Their little thyroids? What does radiation do to them? And another thing, how can radiation be both the culprit and the cure?
I'm starting to yawn, thank goodness. Now I have only 1 ½ hours before I need to get up and go teach. I’ll replay the music, put on the mask that blocks those flashing lights and turn toward the window. I don't’ have to write now. Or take responsibility for it. All the thoughts I have don’t need manifestation. But I was happy to connect to that girl who scribbled the nocturnal poems by streetlight and filled her mind with new ideas. Some of us don’t do that much evolving during the daytime. The night is good for that; no one is watching.
I try not to fight wakefulness even when it takes a toll during the day. I dont yearn for it, but when it comes, I walk through the house, sometimes step out onto the deck, look for lives that aren’t visible during the day, create writing I might disown later and listen to the voices and the music that inhabit the nights.
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