Monday, 17 Jun 2019

Connecting the Dots

Keene Short

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My hometown, Flagstaff, is a galaxy of empires built upon one another. It is a logging college town built on former Mexican territory, formerly New Spain, formerly land inhabited by Native American communities, on the slope of a mountain in a giant ponderosa pine forest on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, where Pluto was discovered on Mars Hill, nestled comfortably along Route 66 where motorcycle gangs, beatniks, Okies, country singers, hippies, and Sun Belt surfers have converged by road, train, bike, and bus. On good days you can find everything listed above; on bad days you can also find everything listed above.

In high school, I offered to help at a Lutheran church’s Christmas Eve service by passing around candles for “Silent Night.” The girl who helped me pass out candles in the dark sanctuary handed me a candle when we finished, lit it with a long waxy wick, and smiled. I’m sure I had a crush on her then, in that moment and in moments after, as we walked out into the snowfall. It only seems to snow on Christmas Eve in movies, but that night it did. That night it snowed fat flakes and the sky glowed orange from the city lights reaching their hands up into the low-hanging clouds. That night we had cinnamon rolls and I nearly hit a deer driving home because I couldn’t shake my mind from the girl’s humming of “Holy Night” in the midst of a hundred little candles reaching their baby fingers up into the lofty, ship-shaped church ceiling.

Some say time is a river, purely linear. Some say time is a spinning wheel, purely cyclical. I say time is a spinning inner tube floating down the Colorado River in summer through the gnashing teeth of rapids and the wailing of waves.

Every year in grade school an astronomer from Lowell Observatory came and set up a giant black tent inside the gym or the music room, whichever was available. One by one, class after class shuffled into the tent and sat in a circle around a round device with hundreds of holes and lines. The astronomer turned it on and the lights reached into the tent’s interior like water droplets, to form the constellations. Even though we knew them by heart, we listened to the astronomer tell each one’s myth, Andromeda and Perseus, Cassiopeia, Pegasus, Orion. The lights swirled around the black tent like hundreds of candles drifting restlessly on paper boats in a lake.

There was a camera, a tripod, a collection of books, and a bottle of red wine in my backpack when the train stopped. It blocked the streets before I could make it to the other side, where my car was parked, and the train simply stopped in its tracks. The gates were down, the red lights flashed back and forth, back and forth, and behind me somebody honked a horn. In the distance I heard several sirens. As I walked toward the only way to the other side, an underpass several blocks away, I wondered if somebody had been hit. I had a camera with me; did I have any right to capture the victim’s story? Would the police let me? Though I tried locating the point of collision, I never made it to either end because of the limitations of the cold, the night, the darkness, and an impending date with a lovely woman over several canning jars of wine. I traded one adventure for another, traded railroad crossing lights under a torrent of stars for bright eyes and warm laughter.

Some historians have posited that the introduction of steam engines and printing presses contracted time and space, and some interpret this more literally than others. Trains brought Mecca to London, print brought Confucius to the Vatican. Love letters from the First World War bring me to the Western Front, and one day this story will bring my great, great grandchildren to Flagstaff, Arizona. This is a letter to the future: please forgive us our mistakes as we forgive the mistakes of our own ancestors. But this is also a letter to the past, not long past but my past: you were not as foolish as you thought you were, and no, the future is not as cataclysmic now as you anticipated. And here, my memories write me back: remember everything; remember those you’ve hurt; remember those you’ve left behind; remember those who constructed you from flour and water and eggs and sugar. And the future offers me the following reply: remember everything, and remember that I am only your past, just wearing different mask.

The Episcopal Church in Flagstaff insisted that children participate in the Eucharist as it is practiced, so early on in my life I developed a taste for wafers and wine. I thought it was a snack, a reward for standing up, sitting down, kneeling, sitting back down, standing back up, and listening to organ music that probably resulted in more nightmares than any horror movie I watched as a kid. I only later discovered that the priest insisted on buying the pricier wines for communion, the kind people might purchase for a third date. To me, Holy Communion was usually a signal the service was almost over. After that, we had one song and one prayer, but as we left, the taste of wine lingered on my tongue. I’m sure my experience as a child in a church is far from unique, though if we were bored enough my brother and I would start chewing on each other’s hair during the Nicene Creed. The choral music, though, always snagged my attention to the choir, to the candles on the altar, and to the ship-shaped ceiling of the church. I often stared into the wooden ceiling just to keep my brain from drifting away from the hymnody.

I traded one adventure for another when I went camping with friends the summer before starting college. I could have joined another group of friends for a road trip, but instead we drove up to Snowbowl, parked along the road, and set up camp a short way down the mountain. Late at night, we trekked back up to the road and stargazed, trying to identify the different constellations we were told about in grade school. Among us were Jimmy and Peaches (both nicknames), whom I’d known since kindergarten. We’d experienced immeasurable fun and unpleasantness in the past thirteen years–bad orchestra concerts, messy art classes, sock puppet group projects, paper maché dinosaurs, field trips to the Grand Canyon and the Phoenix Zoo, unsuccessful attempts to understand Richard III. Stargazing was the last thing we ever did together, the last moment of youth before we launched on our separate ways to conquer the world, or at least conquer our own worlds. That night, the sky was no bigger or more magnificent than I’d remembered. It felt so much more contained, like a windowpane, because we could capture its movement in timelapse photos. I sometimes wish we could do that with our lives to see the big picture, but that’s assuming there ever is a big picture, that our lives are not just a meaningless meandering of dots in the sky. What I wanted to be one last adventure before college became a glimpse into the infrastructure of friendship, and only in retrospect can I connect the dots between these moments to see that, in the end, it’s the little things that culminate to form the great legends. When I looked at the photos, the stars swirled around the black sky like thousands of candles held by a scattered choir.

The Regional Band, Orchestra, and Choir Festival held its concert my first year of high school in our school’s auditorium, and to my surprise I made it that year past the audition. I’d been the last person to audition, which is always an unlucky position because it means the judge, sitting behind a moveable whiteboard to avoid seeing his victims, has heard at least fifty other violinists play the same three etudes, the same scales, the same passage for sight-reading, and is desperate to go home. Nevertheless, my audition was sufficient enough to get me the prestigious position of last chair, next to the flute section and directly in front of the percussion section. For one weekend in February, the Regional Orchestra gathered in Coconino High School for several eight-hour rehearsals to perfect, as best we could, that year’s selection of music. During most of those rehearsals, the conductor ignored the second violins to give more attention to other sections, so I had a lot of time to stare into the dark ceiling above us. When it got too hot on stage, the conductor ordered the sun lights to be opened; these sun lights consisted of a metal door between the roof and stage and did nothing to protect us from the snowfall. Soon, snowflakes tumbled above the middle of the orchestra during a lengthy trio for a flute, harp, and saxophone. The snowfall continued as we plowed through the music. I couldn’t get the trio out of my head, the notes rising amid snow falling, each musician hurtling upward in perfect unison, each section crisscrossing one another, intersecting, merging, warping into one contiguous entity. The music still haunts me, reminding me of a solitary moment when everything fell apart into place. It haunts me, but it delights me, as if my memory is wearing two different masks, one for tragedy and the other for comedy.

Love stories can’t be real; they assume that love is somehow independent of all the other stories we traverse. Love stories take place in dramas and panic attacks, just as the battles of religious doubt and hope unfold in bed, unnoticed in the pillow talk but present like weights. All stories, if the arbitrary accumulation of snowflakes we call stories really do exist, are love stories, and comedies, and tragedies, and passion plays. We’re all being crucified as trains roll by us, we’re all making love as we look up at the stars and wonder. We’re all worried about death while we’re drunk, and maybe death worries about us sometimes. But nobody would read a love story that dwells so heavily on death and religion. It’s too close to the reality.

I experimented with acting by volunteering to be a reader for a ten-minute play showcase, which allowed me to return to the stage. The only difference was that I replaced an instrument with a script. The event itself was fun enough, and it gave me the privilege of exploring a corner of Flagstaff’s art scene with which I had little familiarity. But the smell of the stage, the smell of the curtains, the black floor, the tap of my shoes against the thick wood, the echo of my voice when I was there alone and the cacophony of applause at the end reminded me of what stages meant to me. The best and worst experiences of my life have been on stages: a poetry reading in which I blacked out and repeated the same stanza twice, the finest musical performances of my life, the most disastrous musical performances of my life, lectures from the authors I adored, my first attempt at acting in a play for charity. Standing under the lights before a live audience made me think that the stage was more than wood and curtains and lights and chairs; it was a religious institution. Stages, like holy sites, provide social healing, spiritual comfort, intellectual challenges. They provide music, poetry, and narrative. Maybe all religion is theater, all theater religion. In any case, I’ve always felt peaceful and holy waiting behind the curtains for the moment to march into position.

When we connect the paint splashes in an effort to make reality from mistakes, we produce history. Is there really any connection between the collapse of New Spain and the use of steam and print in the nineteenth century? Is there any connection between the railroad in Arizona and Flagstaff’s artistic community? For me at least, ghosts of the past insert themselves into the world regularly. The ghost of Socrates walks through my head at night and asks me to count trains and wonder why people choose to die beneath their grinding wheels. The ghosts of English Kings, gold miners, and astronomers tug at my shirt sleeves, and the past contracts into uniformity. Flagstaff exists in 1910, 1810, 1549, 1492, 411 BCE, all at once. When I connect the dots of the dead across time and space, I see the creation of freedom, colonialism, philosophy, religion, and art where previously there were only stars arranged with the chaos of the Big Bang.

I fell in love with a woman who sang in the choir at the Episcopal Church in Flagstaff. Not having attended in over fifteen years, the smells of wood, wax, and wine returned viciously and voraciously to my mind when I stepped into the creaky, dusty, ship-shaped building. From where I sat, I could not see her in the choir. When I drank the wine at Holy Communion, saddened that it signaled a time when the service was nearly over, I still could not see her. But we spoke before and after the service, and walked to the nearby duck pond in the afternoon sun. Never mind that we both had violent hangovers. Never mind that I nearly puked at the taste of wine during Holy Communion. Never mind that I dozed off during the readings, the sermon, and most of the prayers. Never mind that the old church contained the ghosts of my memories not yet exorcized by self-examination. Seeing her in the light from the stained glass window was worth the standing up, sitting down, kneeling, sitting back down, standing back up. My time with her was not a Eucharist of body and blood, but of music and literature, and perhaps one day I’ll find the difference between those two rituals.

I fell in love in the snow. Snow, in its briefness, is beautiful, even erotic, to me. Seeing the woman I loved look out her window one night at three feet of fresh snow turned orange from the streetlights made me realize just how profoundly hysterical snow made me. I fell in love with a woman in snow, and she fell in love with me in Spring, and for a semester we did everything together: bad theater performances, poetry slams, lengthy church services, camping in the rain, stargazing over wine and tears next to a river. Looking back, I can almost swear that I saw us on the other side of the river that night in each other’s arms. But who am I to say if it was a ghost or a dream or wishful thinking? I’ll never see the big picture of this relationship as it melted into flowers and grass and fresh leaves. All I’ll have is saying goodbye on a train platform, but not like a typical movie ending, or a movie beginning. Scripted as it was, it was only one snowflake in the sky, falling adjacent the moment we met, the moment I told her I was in love with her, the moment I first went camping, the moment I last go camping, the moment at which I die, and perhaps the moment we meet again at another train station, a skyscape of time shrinking between us until then.

Keene Short is a recent graduate of Northern Arizona University, and now pursues an MA in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His work has appeared in Burningword Literary Journal and Garbanzo Literary Journal. In his spare time he blogs about history and writing at