Virginia in August bring a special kind of oppression. Despite being a native, I still find the heat here to be a kind of cruelty. The humidity – which is said to be unable to start a fire – somehow manages to suck away all desire save for imagining some kind of escape.
It’s a different kind of heat, that much is certain. I told myself that, after the war, I wouldn’t complain about weather ever again. Kuwait, where the temperature would exceed the ticks on the thermometer daily, was a special kind of Hell. It was a heat that forced us all to adopt nocturnal tendencies. And Iraq, clad as we were in ill-fitting armor, was a unique kind of bad. Rolling near water, including my frequent Diyala River crossings, was like passing into another world. The humidity there was so thick as to be practically visible. Returning to summer in Texas was easy in comparison.
Tonight, as I sat on my porch with a cigar and a cheap pilsner, there was a visible haze in the park across the street. People, being people, were doing what people do best – carrying on. Folks were out walking their dogs, or trying to hurry a six back from the store – weighing breaking a sweat against losing the cans’ chill to the weather.
My neighbors to the right, that’s porch right, had ditched their shirts sometime after sundown. It was a tacit suggestion that either their window units weren’t keeping pace or that they were not going to suffer unjustly while getting a necessary cigarette. I couldn’t judge. I was sitting and sweating in silence as I tried to enjoy my last Montecristo.
Virginia heat has a kind of mindless destruction. It’s like the way people wax poetic about fires. How fire is frightening because it consumes without thought. Our sticky nights, and crushing days, don’t really kill. Instead they just remove will, leaving us alive and left to deal with that circumstance.
It was that realization that, for some reason, triggered the anecdote that hung with me for the remainder of the evening. It was so very long ago. I must have been twenty-two. I’m sure I still have the evidence in the crate in my closet, the one with all of my writing, but I am too lazy to go dig it out. Regardless, I was an “old” freshman – ancient by West Point standards. Age was a death sentence at the Academy, for that’s a school where only the young survive. At the time, I was in the Poetry club – shocking, I know – and the civilian professor that oversaw his grey wool clad wards, was doing his best to impart the wisdom of his age. He, I have to call him that because I have forgotten his name in the dozen plus years since, was working his way through an obviously practiced anecdote about a poem he’d been writing and editing and rewriting for six years.
The lesson we were supposed to learn was that good art takes time. But I recall quite clearly the lesson I got. I was an insufferable twenty-two year-old. As our civilian overseer spoke, I grabbed a pen and a notebook I’m sure I still own, and I scribbled.
“Six years? I’m twenty-two. I don’t have time for that.”
As I said, insufferable. I am so glad that I don’t have to put up with my younger self. I’m sure it’d end in violence.
But that thought brought up my recent turn. The string of events that lead to me sitting on a porch, sweating and silent in a neighborhood where I finally feel at home. The string of events that lead to me listening to one of my favorite albums and waiting for the booze to hit so I could write.
Back then I was to quick to hit the publish button. I was in a constant fervor. Publishing over ten thousand words a month. Essays, chapters, short stories. I was producing a solid stream. I am not romanticizing this. I don’t pretend that the shit I wrote in my early twenties was by any arguable means, good. But it was something. And it go me to the vaunted million words mark – the dividing line between those who dabble at writing and those who have spent a few years actually doing it.
Today, after quite a bit of pointed reflection, I realize that back then I was always writing to others, for others. I was writing to impress. It was a cycle, impress, tease out an idea, get some level of feedback. Write and move on.
I suppose there was some measure of freedom there. Funny, considering that being in the Army was an overall restricted life.
As I got older, as I moved into both greater freedom and a deeper sense of comfort, I moved away from the love of the idea of writing and towards my current fixation – the idea of communication. The why, the how. Today I spend far more time trying to understand just what makes communication effective, and how it actually works, than I do actually hitting publish. Part of that is because at some point I started writing purely for myself. My writing today is inherently selfish. Done longhand. Ink on paper.
To be fair, there is a certain bit of magic when a fountain pen scratches against paper. It’s audibly pleasing, a rhythm that lulls me (at least) into a flow. The downside is that these words are harder to share, and are arguably selfish. They live and die shortly after being captured. Flipped pages hiding them. Even if they’re good, and that’s a tough argument, nobody else can see them. It’s not that I no longer relish the sharing of ideas – on the contrary, it’s a fixation – just that I am finding myself much less prone to do so. At least in any meaningful way.
Sure, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become accustomed to teasing out ideas – seeing where they go, what life they might have before sharing them. I’ll test ideas. Let an idea loose in a social setting, tossing it out into an audience I know and judge the reactions against my predicted reactions. More than once I’ve been called on this, friends asking point blank if I was “trying out new material” on them.
And the truth is, sometimes I was. Or am.
But, I have to. I spent a lot of time silent and in my head. My dog, Baxter, is not cut out to be a writer’s dog. Tonight, while I was on the porch, I had to send him back inside. As I was trying to enjoy a smoke and working my way to a decent buzz – the kind that somehow enables both remembering and forgetting – he just wanted to destroy all the sticks that some storm had kicked onto the porch.
So, yes, the heat here is oppressive. The kind of oppression that encourages dreams of escape. Of leaving to northern, cooler climates. I hear good things about Iceland. And the heat seems to effect everyone different. My neighbors lose theirs shirts. Baxter gets intent on destroying sticks and leaves. And I recall old anecdotes about how I used to write – and more importantly publish – as means to escape.
Perhaps I’ll share more, if only out of selfish reasons. Or perhaps I’ll share more because of all the horrible things I’ve seen and done, at thirty-five, I’m still very bothered by the idea of spending six years working on a poem.