Category Archives: Personal Essay

Non-fictional writing of a personal nature.

The Life of Cities

Everywhere, we are a stranger arriving into light

✎  Wayne K. Spear | April 3, 2018 · Essay

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VERYONE IN A CITY is a unwritten message, a scriptless actor, a hidden quantity suspended between two moments of familiarity: the known they have left behind, and the known toward which they rush, through the tower atrium where calèches and footmen once passed. You are the next in the line, the subsequent fare, a neuron of commerce passing the bill, to a woman who pretends she is happy to see you. In a city, you befriend alleys and skylines, the shadows cast by skyscrapers, and the smell of foreign shops. You embrace the philosophy of the crane, its iron doctrine of destruction and rebirth, and you peer into the bones of a gestating condo, where love will take root, or not, among strangers of the future.

In a city, you wear your anonymity like a childhood sweater. We are all theoretical, without sin, mute yet plenipotentiary, emerging into the rush-hour light with undeclared purpose. Mere inconvenience compels us toward the sterile momentary intimacy of crowded subways. A portal disgorges us, severally, seeds to the wind. I have never seen you, and I will never see you again. The life of the city is the purest form of grace, a work of love, a perfunctory cohabitation without grievance or jealousy, without expectation or agenda, without the unbearable sweetness of hope.

We meet in moments of city inconvenience, with our burdens and propositions. You provide directions, hold the door open, carry the stroller down the stair, lend a stranger the charger for your phone. You feel embarrased to ask for these things. It is an imposition, perhaps even a mild trasngression of the unspoken compact. In the city we are, all of us, unto ourselves. We go out into the world with the requisite provisions, mindful of the hazards. The city is a living, unaccomodating beast. We accept this and get on our way.

A city is a bookshelf in a house where everyone writes, but does not read. The idea of reading, a vision of the forever- unread and unreadable, intoxicates us. But in the village, everyone has memorized the stories. There are no secrets and no strangers in the town. In town, you are an open book, a fully parsed sentence, always Mary or John or Maria. You have only one face, and you wear it wherever you go, to every human purpose. In town, you give the cashier an accounting of yourself, obliged to the currency of human curiosity, tethered to the law of ceremony and consanguinity, forever reconciling the ledger of entanglements.

The city is not better than the town. Nothing is better than another thing. Everywhere, in the skin of the earth, there are cracks and crevices. We call this place by one name, and by another name we come to know another place, or we think that we know, but nothing truly has a name. Everywhere, the road we are on will one day end suddenly, like the wrinkles of a palm. Everywhere, we are exchanging bits of data and drawing from our accounts. Everywhere, we are between two places. Everywhere, we are a stranger arriving into light.

Loss

You learn, sometimes too late, what is needed for the voyage, and what must be left behind

✎  Wayne K. Spear | March 29, 2018 • Essay

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E ARRIVE TO THE WORLD naked, with nothing but a connecting thread to those who, with any luck, will love and nourish us. Soon enough there will be clothing and bright light, crepundia, a crash of voices, perambulation, the blush of passing foliage, a human parade. Soon enough, a world of objects and subjects, of wordless wonders. All this, before there is a you and me, before the arrival of that indelible space that separates, all before the problematic ego, before the untidy business of living.

You learn, years later, that a hotel is not a place. You learn that you came into the world with all that you needed. You learn, but it is the forever too late. Somewhere in the distance is that place you call home, or once called home, where the woman who once loved you washes dishes, or stares into the distance, or does none of these. A hotel is not a place, but you are a man filling the requisite chair, a quadrate, among the absent unknowable others who are between an elsewhere yesterday and tomorrow. You learn, too late, what was needed for this voyage and what must be left behind.

Time passes. You learn the trick of putting names to things. You understand that evenings, when you are alone with yourself, are the most difficult. This is the time when unnamed things belabour themselves to the water’s surface, demanding to be named, needing to be sorted into a taxonomy of mourning. Grief has many hands. It overturns even the most hidden of stones, reconstituting origins and descent, questioning everything, anatomizing the fossils, naming.

You throw yourself into a world that does not see and does not care that everything has changed. Everywhere is a hotel. You begin to notice strange and inexplicable things, for instance that the sky is not the familiar sky. The cashier asks you how you are, and you pretend that this is an ordinary thing to say. You pretend to believe that words still mean to you what they once meant. You pretend that the ice beneath your feet is not slippery, but the moments arrive when a footing gives way and you are certain you will go down, down into the water. I am good, you tell the cashier, and she does not take your hand because she does not see the ice or the all-consuming sea. And in that moment, it occurs to you that the hand that once would have reached out to you will reach out no more.

We come into the world with only what we need, and in time we will lose everything. Some things we will leave behind, perhaps not knowing it for a time, and in other instances there will be a perfunctory kiss on the cheek, before someone disappears into the car that will never return. There will be arrivals and departures, the passing of place to place, a remembrance of love and bright light, from an unbridgeable shore. Gratitude and sorrow, the will to go on, the human parade, an ocean that forever empties into a sea.

Why Do We Dream?

Would a life of only agreeable experiences be as rich and profound as a life of at least some struggle and suffering?

✎  Wayne K. Spear | February 1, 2018 • Personal Essay

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HY DO WE DREAM? Why the dreams of stress and misery, of being lost, of wandering, missing the train and having no phone nor money, sometimes not even clothing. The dreams are always of failure and disappointment, always of appointments about to be missed. A wrong bus taken, a wrong turn on a highway that allows no going back. And there I find myself, alone, in a wilderness, sometimes at a border I must but cannot cross. There is a sense of urgency, a deadline, a nameless necessary place I cannot reach. There is no one to call, nowhere to go. What is to be done?

I pick up the boxes or the bags, or whatever burden I am compelled to carry. A wagon, or a set of luggage. Something awkward and useless, but indispensable, on a path of deep mud. A cold wind, water, rough stones underfoot. It is dark, and the rain is heavy. My vision is obscured, by snow or by fog. I am miles from anywhere, from everywhere, arms filled with something that does not help me on the voyage but which I must carry, for reasons unknown. I don’t know who has given me these possessions, if that’s what they are, or where I will take them. There is always one thing I have managed to drop or otherwise misplace—the one, critical thing. A passport or a receipt, a map, instructions, a phone number. It is gone, and though I search for it again and again, I find nothing. I cannot go home or reach my destination. I am suspended in a story with no arc and no momentum. I may well remain here forever.

The landscape changes in an instant. I am on a bus, but now I am in a boat. We reach the shore, and I step out, but the dry land is suddenly an ocean and the boat is slipping away too fast for me to swim. I call out but no one hears, and I watch the boat get smaller and then vanish. The ocean becomes desert. I drag my belongings through deep sand. Nothing makes sense. Why am I in a desert? I know only that there is an appointment which must be kept. To miss it is to suffer an unbearable blow. I must find a phone. I must let them know that I have been delayed, that I am doing my best to arrive, only give me more time. I am trying as best I can, I will tell them, and I will be there. Just give me more time.

I have this dream almost every night. A dream of terror from which I wake in a panic, my heart pounding. My mind torments me in my sleep for reasons I cannot understand. I am lost without recourse and the world I have known slips away, but there is nothing I can do. A dream that means nothing, that warns me of nothing, that solves nothing. Why do I dream?

A night arrives when I lie down for sleep and I tell my mind the dream I want to have when I am gone. Where I have got this idea, I can’t say. It is an experiment, an act of desperation. I describe the dream in as much detail as I can manage. I don’t want to leave anything to chance. So I describe what I am doing in the dream, perhaps floating in water (but not drowning!) or flying in air (but not pursued!) and I choose a place, also, such as the tropics or a Mediterranean port town, Venice, or a house from my childhood. And the people I want to see there, I specify this too. What will we talk about? The happy times, things that draw laughter, beauty. All that is impossible in life, I describe. The departed will be there. I will breathe underwater. I will have dinner with the dead and a journey into space. I know that my mind has an agenda, to introduce monsters, so I interpolate the fantastic on my own terms. There will be palaces and ocean creatures and other-worldly beings, not of the menacing variety but come to reunite with their sundered kin.

They come not bearing unresolved guilt, but joy. Everything that has been buried remains buried, including the mind, submerged and inscrutable, burdened by its inheritance and longing to be set free. And so I am clear about my desire. I would prefer not to see the half-rotted faces, the ghosts, the brutal finality of cul-de-sacs. I don’t wish to be trapped or lost or set on a fool’s errand. I want to feel love, and not terror or sadness. I tell this to my mind as I prepare for sleep. I know that life is loss and pain, but if one can confect a dream, then why not a dream of happiness?

To my surprise I find that this works, even if imperfectly. The departed return to sit for tea. There is no grief, no dragging of luggage through a useless desert. I discover that the imagination invents pleasure as easily as it invents pain. Would a life of only agreeable experiences be as rich and profound as a life of at least some struggle and suffering? Perhaps, but this is invention, not life. In life, no one chooses the losses, the pain, the tragedy. In life, one is chosen.

The suffering return from their journey bearing wisdom. We whisper in their presence, awkwardly, our faces grown longer. Wherever they go, those who suffer find streets of dark water, and when we stumble upon them we phrase our greeting with care. They did not ask for the journey, and we don’t want to know too much about it, but they return holding a marvellous gem that they alone can explain. A gem from a dream of the departed who haunt them. A dream not of the day but of the relentless, interminable day. A fascinating gem that I do not want to ever hold.