This Morning

This morning was something.
A little snow lay on the ground.
The sun floated in a clear blue sky.
The sea was blue, and blue-green, as far as the eye could see.
Scarcely a ripple.
I dressed and went for a walk — determined not to return until I took in what Nature had to offer.
I passed close to some old, bent-over trees.
Crossed a field strewn with rocks where snow had drifted.
Kept going until I reached the bluff.
Where I gazed at the sea, and the sky, and the gulls wheeling over the white beach far below.
All lovely.
All bathed in a pure cold light.
But, as usual, my thoughts began to wander.
I had to will myself to see what I was seeing and nothing else.
I had to tell myself this is what mattered, not the other.
(And I did see it, for a minute or two!) For a minute or two it crowded out the usual musings on what was right, and what was wrong — duty, tender memories, thoughts of death, how I should treat with my former wife.
All the things I hoped would go away this morning.
The stuff I live with every day.
What I’ve trampled on in order to stay alive.
But for a minute or two I did forget myself and everything else.
I know I did.
For when I turned back i didn’t know where I was.
Until some birds rose up from the gnarled trees.
And flew in the direction I needed to be going.

-Raymond Carver

In Which Kirk Pulls Me Apart and Puts Me Back Together

After half a dozen beers and several whiskeys I stood up to leave. There was an ice bucket in the center of the deck. I tripped over it and cursed.

“I’ve got to head home,” I told Kirk. “The library opens in five hours.”

He shook his head and laughed. “My god, man, do you ever stop? Hold on a minute,” he said. He waved his arms. “Just a minute, okay, okay. I need to talk to you about some stuff.”

I sat down on the porch step and lit a cigarette. I was having a hard time getting my zippo to stay lit. He moved in front of me and began to wave his hands. “Now, listen, just listen, listen, man. I’m concerned about you.”

I wiped my eyes and sighed.

“First,” he said. “Let’s talk about this novel.”

“What about it?” I asked.

“God, man, my God,” he laughed. “So I’m reading it and here you are evoking that free will is an illusion, and so, of course, is fatalism. I’m dying over it. It’s fantastic. You’re evoking this agency and tangling with these things and it’s wonderful. It’s just fantastic. It’s not even finished and I think it’s quite effective. But,” he said, gesturing with his hands, “it’s a remarkable undertaking itself. Like, just on its own, that’s a huge task, what you’re trying to say, right? But you’re not just getting at those things.”

I nodded. “Right,” I said. “That’s right.”

He took a deep breath and continued, his hands still swinging frantically. “You’re also dealing with these complex philosophical ideals – you’re invoking the will, affirmation, these ascetic ideals, and so on. And these are a novels worth of concepts to evoke and get at by themselves. And it’s fantastic. It’s coming together really well in my opinion.”

“Thanks,” I said.

I smirked. He shook his head.

“No. No. Hold on a minute. Hold on here,” he said.

“Let me get another beer,” I said, walking into the kitchen.

I sat down and took a swig. He was looking at me with his hands on his hips, frowning. He stuck his hand out.

“Now, listen, Shane, my friend. Listen, here, okay. This stuff can mess with your head. Trust me. I know. If you don’t stop and breathe and shut your mind down, it’ll get to you. And I know how your mind operates. We’ve got similar minds, right?”

I nodded. I took the ashtray, walked over to the end of the deck and dumped the ashes into the grass, then sat down again.

“Well, let’s look at what’s going on and call these things into question. Okay? Okay? Right, so here you are writing this novel, which I think should be your main focus, your main objective.”

I nodded again. “Sure,” I said. “I agree.”

He pursed his lips. “Well, look at this though. You’re not sleeping at all. You’re drinking like a fish. You’re reading entire textbooks for classes that haven’t even begun. You’re trying to come to terms with the history of western thought in a month or two. You’re writing papers for classes that haven’t begun. And again, right, right, you’re not sleeping at all. And when you’re not doing these things, constantly writing and reading, you’re drinking like a fish. And sometimes you’re doing them at the same time, like tonight at the bar. I mean, my god, Shane, Shane, I mean, look at these things. Your wife is one of the sweetest, most gorgeous women I’ve ever known, and you’re here at a bar by yourself, reading poems and writing. What’s going on here, really?”

I shook my head and sighed. “I know, Kirk. I’m a mess. I’m working on it.”

“Well, he said. “I’ve thought about these things. Let me tell you what I see.” He sat in front of me, drinking from his beer. “You’re wrapped up in all this shame and guilt, all these illusions and it’s killing you, man. It’s killing you fast. The other night on the porch you actually said, “I’m gonna stay here. I need to suffer.” I mean you actually said that, word for word. You literally said you need to suffer.”

I looked at him. “Did I?”

As I was saying this a large golden tabby crawled into my lap and began to knead on my thigh. I scratched behind its ears.

“Yeah, man. You actually believe you need to suffer. Shane,” he paused now, drank the last of his beer and set it down. “Shane, you’re punishing yourself over nothing, just illusions. It’s not even you. It’s just your mind. If there was a buddhist around they’d smack the shit out of you. I mean, to be honest, we should have converted to Buddhism years ago.”

I laughed. I was having a hard time at this point in the conversation. We were being eaten alive by mosquitos, but neither of us suggested retreating into the house.

“You’re sitting around punishing yourself for, what was it you said, for even feeling sadness, for being upset. It’s like you’re punishing yourself for imagined past transgressions. It’s a form of pleasure. Do you see that?”

“Sure,” I said. “I know what you’re saying.”

“Yes,” he said, pointing at me. “But do you really see it? Do you understand it’s just your mind. It’s not you. It’s an illusion and you’re punishing yourself because it makes you feel good to suffer for these things over which you feel guilt and shame and all these other negating things. You don’t need to feel those things. You shouldn’t. You should reject them. Do you see that?”

“I think so,” I said. “I guess I’m still trying to get beyond these things I believe shape my identity. I think I’m just struggling to get beyond these things.”

He nodded. I pulled a small garden table between us and poured another drink, pretending to study the label.

“Well, you, it’s not just in your head either. I mean, look, look, you invest yourself in people who don’t give two fucks about you, and you actually hold the people who care about you at arms length, or reject them altogether. I mean, Jesus, poor Aryn probably thinks her husband is going mad.”

There was a truth in these things and I was conscious of it before Kirk called it out. His expression was sincere. He believed these were important things that needed to be discussed, examined, and reconciled. He continued.

“The solution to these things is right in front of you. You’ve got all you need for a happy life, but you’re choosing this hell based on illusions. It’s not just you. It’s all of us, myself included. There’s only now,” he said. “That’s all there is is right now – this present. Do you see?”

I nodded. “Right,” I said.

“I mean, I don’t mean to grill you or tear you apart. That’s not my intention,” he said. “It’s just, I think you’re headed for a collapse. I can see it now. You’ve got to give your mind a rest. You’ve got to come to terms with these things and address them appropriately. Let them go and get on with affirming things. Stop torturing yourself. And for Christ’s sake stop wasting your time and energy on people who don’t give a fuck about you. You understand?”

We stood and walked to the edge of the porch. I looked into the field. “Thanks,” I said. “I really appreciate you looking out for me. No one else does. I mean it – thank you, Kirk.”

“Hey, listen, Shane. I don’t mean to barrage you, either. You’re a good guy. You’re my friend. I admire the hell out of  you.” He said. “I just hate seeing you so miserable like this, and I’m sure Aryn hates it too. You’ve got plenty to offer. Be good to yourself.”

“I will. Thanks,” I said.

“Are you okay?” He asked.

“I am.” I paused. “You don’t know how good it is to hear someone ask that. It’s absurd. I sound like a kid.”

“Hey, look, no, no, it’s not at all. Go home. Kiss your wife. Sleep through the night. Slow down a while. We’ll talk soon.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I will. Thanks again.”

I got in my car and began to drive home. The highway was empty. The moon was low. Something was bothering me, but I let it slip through the cracks and turned up the radio.


“I’m trying to sort out what kind of person I am,” I told her. “I don’t know what kind of man I am. Remember when we were kids? I felt alive. Everything had an energy. Everything was important.”

Outside the rain blew against the windowpane. She sipped her wine. The cat slept soundly in my lap.

“You’re livelier than when we were kids.” She said. “You’re peppy. That’s not the right word. Ignore that.”  

The cat stretched and leapt down from my lap. I poured a glass of whiskey, frowned, and sat down beside her.

“I don’t have feelings of aliveness, anymore. I don’t mean to complain. Ignore me.” I annoyed myself thinking these things, speaking them aloud only aggravated me further.

The cat disappeared into the bedroom. “You’re fine,” she said. “You can’t go on trying to spite the suffering from back in those days. Get on with your life. That’s how I see it. No regrets. No self-pity.”

“I know.” I said. “I don’t know how to get beyond this feeling, girl. It’s annoying me that it’s even bothering me. It makes me nauseous, sick of myself.”

“Wine helps, boy.” She said. “You need a good meal. Cook with me. You’ll feel better. I promise.”

She tossed me an apron. I smiled and picked up a wooden rolling pin, covered in flour. “Let me at it.” I said. “Well, more whiskey, first.”

The table was set. I finished preparing the salad. She pulled breaded chicken breasts from the oven. The cat looked at me from under the table. I shook my head.

“Chenin blanc?” She asked, rinsing our glasses.

I nodded. She stared at me.

“What is it, boy? You’re crying.”

“Am I?” My cheeks were damp. “I must be tired.”

We ate in silence. She glanced at me often, her brow furrowed with worry.

Afterward, we lay in bed, but I couldn’t sleep. She’d been asleep on her stomach for a few hours. I kissed her forehead, then threw back the covers and stumbled across the room.

I pulled on a t-shirt and walked into the kitchen. The cat was asleep on the table. The window was cracked, the rain dripping down the glass, onto the counter. I shut the window and lowered my head to peer out into the dark. There was a noise behind me. Girl watched me from the bedroom doorway. It was four in the morning.