Monday, August 23, 2010


Lives & Half-Lives: A Love Story

I once saw a small boy stop cold on an Alabama sidewalk when he saw a half-brick in his path: just a common red building brick with dirty white mortar still stuck to its sides. He had been chatting about something happily, holding fast to his mother's hand, but when the brick presented itself, he dropped her hand, forgetting her completely, as he was struck by the half-brick there before him on the concrete walkway of the city. He squatted down to look at it more closely.

Huh!? he gasped, expelling all the air in his mouth and lungs quickly like someone who's been sucker-punched. He was in an altered state. State of awe. Or reverence. Or wonder. Whatever it was that so captivated him about that half-brick, his mother had a dickens of a time pulling him off of it. No matter what she said about its worthlessness ("It's just an old brick" and "There are hundreds of them in that building over there") he sat there staring and staring at it, as if it were gold. Finally, though, and because she was growing impatient with him, the boy let her take his hand again and move him on down the sidewalk towards wherever it was they were heading that morning, though the boy continued looking backwards, over his shoulder, at that dislodged, busted brick until the two of them rounded a corner and were no longer in sight.

It occurred to me that the boy had remarkable vision – not sight, mind you, but vision, that seeing-beyond what is visible to the ordinary eye. He was asking the deep questions about what had fallen in his path. He was seeing the possibilities, mulling them over. Wondering.

I taught my first writing class in 1997 at St. Mary's College of Southern Maryland – a workshop of twelve aspiring young writers. After a few weeks of workshop, the students struck me as an unusually uninspired bunch: they disliked the work of writing, though they often spoke dreamily of what it would be like to be published and "famous." And worse, I was beginning to detect traces, in their writings, of boredom with the known world, that old ho-hum of the jaded cynic. In discussions, they mostly complained about the literary canon, mocking what was, claiming they would write and breathe life into the literary world, something radical and "new." They were the self-proclaimed revolutionaries of contemporary American literature. They had adopted, for themselves, dull green and brown t-shirts with the face of Che Guevara on the front and they wore those shirts to campus with great pride, though I doubted they really understood anything about Guevara's revolution. Even then, I knew how easy it is to speak of making a difference in the world from the comfort of an air-conditioned, well-lit, well-appointed corner of academia.

So I thought I'd take them out of that comfortable element one day, that I'd get them out of the classroom with its polished veneer conference table and gray upholstered chairs, and I'd get them - and their backsides - back in touch with the nitty-gritty of the actual world. I wouldn't even have to take them very far: just out into the courtyard, to the bell-tower and brick walkways of the college itself. I borrowed, from a colleague in the sciences, a Geiger-Mueller Detector – colloquially-known as a Geiger Counter – and I led the twelve young writers out into the bright afternoon sun, to the little bricked square under the north clock-tower. It was a warm day in Southern Maryland, but not uncomfortably so. And this wasn't about "comfort" anyway, I reminded myself. I had them sit down on the bricked walks and instructed them to just listen to the bricks around them, to be out there among them, to touch them, to put their ears against the wall and walkways, and to listen to the stories the bricks had to tell. After half an hour or so, we'd gather back under the clock tower and they'd have to tell us all the "story" the bricks had told them.

I saw the side-long glances they threw each other as they turned to walk up and down along the brick walks and walls that made up the little courtyard, that old Oh-my-God-why-does-she-have-us-doing-this look. So the half-hour passed uneventfully and they gathered back under the clock-tower, sitting dutifully down in a circle and leaving a little extra space, for good measure, between me and the ones on either side of me: just like they did each Wednesday afternoon in the classroom. When I asked who wanted to go first, I was surprised to see them pulling sheets of paper from their notebooks and pockets. After all, I'd said we'd tell each other the stories, not write them down. But I kept quiet and let it play itself out, for better or worse.

Then, as one after another read their "stories," I could see they had not only written them down, they'd also been revising them, editing and changing them along the way, scratching out a word here and there, inserting paragraphs in the margins, drawing little arrows so they'd remember the order. All this in half an hour! One brick, it turned out, had a step-mother who rivaled Cinderella's in cruelty. Another had a recent heartache. Another, unrequited love. Another brick spoke only in gerunds, no nouns, no actual verbs. all single words down the left-hand margin of the page, something faintly resembling a poem. One brick was giving the listener the cold shoulder, refusing to talk. Another told a story about a frat party-gone-wrong and all its morning-after regrets.

What a coincidence: the bricks were telling the same stories the young writers had been telling, in obscure poetry or dull prose, for weeks now.

When all the stories had been shared aloud, I stood up. I took the small Geiger Counter out of the brown grocery sack I'd brought out to the courtyard with me. I turned the dial and walked up and down the bricks of the columns, the bricks of the walkways, the bricks of the walled structures. I ran the sensor over the newer bricks of the clock tower. It chattered, sometimes slowly, sometimes a little more quickly. Chattered. It was the only sound around us. For a long time, it seemed, no one spoke. Only the bricks were talking.

I kept my silence too, putting the Geiger Counter back into the sack again and taking my place again among the students. And in the awkward weightiness of my silence - something which they could never bear for long - their questions began: Are bricks radioactive? Why? Is this something to be worried about – after all, the college is mostly brick? What does this have to do with writing? Is this some metaphor?

And so on. And so forth.

When they had ceased their chattering, I took out a cassette player on which I'd recorded what two of my sons and two friends of theirs had said the night before when I'd brought them out there and put them through the exercise as a sort of "test run" for today's lesson. Here's what they'd said:

1. These bricks are foreigners. They don't speak English so they can only talk to the ivy and the gnats. Sure, they might be telling the gnats and mosquitoes their stories, but I can't understand a single word. It's like when my mom and dad fight: I don't know what the words mean. I just wanna get outta there.

2. If I ever do something terrible and it starts to eat me up, I will come out here and tell my horrible secret to these bricks. They keep everybody's secrets. Even their own.

3. Today I have a headache and a sore throat, so I have to whisper. I think I might have an earache too because all I hear when I put my ear against this brick is ticking. Like a little clock. Like a big fat time-bomb ready to go off.

4. My mom's a little nuts. She thinks bricks can tell a story. That just proves how nuts she is. Now all of us guys are starting to act nutty too, because we don't want to hurt her feelings or make her cry. Knowing my mom, I bet she comes out here sometimes and listens to this wall. I bet when nobody is looking, she gets down on her hands and knees and puts her ear down to this brick walk, just like the Indians used to do when they were listening for the calvary [sic] to come riding in. I don't hear a thing, but I bet she does. She's always listening for something. That's how nuts she is.

The boys and I had continued to sit there for a long time in the courtyard, chatting amiably, while the dusk descended and the gnats swarmed and made little tornado shapes in the air around us. We laughed and laughed at each others' stories and we made up a few more just for the fun of it. We were strangely happy. Full of that giddy, silly feeling that comes over you when you just feel the pleasure of playing with words and ideas and you're not being graded for it. When it got dark and the mosquitoes, the little blood-suckers, came out in earnest, we all piled back into my old yellow station wagon and drove into Lexington Park for ice cream sundaes, my treat to them for having helped me out with the lesson. It seemed a fitting ending to a good evening together: something sweet with a lot of calories.

When the sundaes were brought to the table, one of the boys asked the waitress if she could see anything in his ear. Like what? she asked, squinting up her face and peering into his ear canal. Oh, he answered, brick dust. Or gnats. She backed off to a safe distance and the boys laughed at her reaction. Their version of a little inside joke.

But that afternoon on campus, after the actual class lesson was over and the workshop time was up, my undergrads patiently packed their notebooks and folded their notes into their backpacks and book-bags, stood up, and dusted the dirt from their purposely-tattered jeans before stumbling off to their next classes. They seemed unhappy to have been upstaged by four little boys and a Geiger Counter. I felt like the worst teacher ever. What had I been thinking? By the time they get to higher education, students have been too well-schooled to just let go and enjoy anything ever again, in the classroom at least. Grades are at stake here. Scholarships. Degrees. Careers and salaries are attached to everything they are working for. How, by then, can you un-teach them all those well-learned lessons so they can learn how to see something wondrous again in the world and in themselves, and to marvel at it with something akin to pleasure? How can you introduce them to thenew old world all over again, these little self-proclaimed revolutionaries of literature? I didn't know. I still don't know. It's like explaining how to fall in love: it can't be done directly. You have to tell it slant. And my slant on it all had failed so utterly, it hurt a little. From life to half-life, just like that.

In the years since that afternoon, I have wondered often at those students' lack of wonder, their absence of delight. It troubles me. Deeply. What had jaded them so at such a young age, what hurt them so deeply that they had walled off their hearts and couldn't even hear the ticking underneath it all – that little time-bomb of mortality? I wondered what they made of that lesson and the chattering bricks, wondered if it has ever even occurred to them.

Not long ago, a letter arrived in my campus office in Alaska: it was from a young man who'd been in that undergraduate writing workshop. He was writing to tell me that he'd gone on to earn his BA in Language and Literature, a MS in Nuclear Physics and then, later, his Doctor of Divinity degree, that he was married with a son and was working now as a minister for a small church in upper New York State. He wrote that he'd thought about that lesson in the courtyard from time to time and it bothered him that he thought he'd missed something important in it. He'd learned, somewhere along the way, about that radiation in the bricks, about the process of brick-making, and the lives and half-lives of the radioactive ore used to make them. He went on to tell me about how the ore that is used in refractory brick is commonly found alongside the presence of naturally-occurring radioactive elements such as uranium and thorium. These bricks aren't dangerous, he assured me, even though they emit enough of a "pulse" to sometimes send a Geiger Counter chattering. Not dangerous, that is, unless one was to crush the brick into a fine powder and dust and then expose humans to it.

His letter went on to discuss what he'd learned of the lives and half-lives of some common elements:Carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,730 years whereas the half-life of Uranium-230 is somewhere around 4.5 billion years. Imagine that, he wrote, a half-life of four-and-a-half billion years!

I thought I heard, just then, something like wonder creeping into his voice. He'd finally, all these years later, started the conversation I'd hoped to have on that spring afternoon in Southern Maryland. And had I been so inclined, I would have written back to him about my experience with some of the half-lives of medicine's nuclear discoveries, like those which use Iodine-131 which has a half-life of only 8 days: what procedures it is used in and what we can see in its "ghost" as it travels whitely through the human body. But I didn't tell him that story. Anyone could have told him that one. I had a different tale to tell. A story about how the earth was made and how it still ticks wildly with a radioactivity that's been there from its birth. It's a good story, I think, and as plausible as any. It was a story I thought a young minister might appreciate.

I have a story for you too, I wrote back to him yesterday, about the chattering bricks. They have been made, like us, from the earth – the dust and ash and the clay and spittle of it – the earth, which is also made up of naturally-occurring radioactive materials (NORMs, they are called, and how appropros that acronym seems). The bricks' story, I went on, is the story of the earth. Their story begins almost where the dead sea scrolls began their story: " In the beginning, God, the heavens, and the earth. . . ."

It gets me to thinking, today, about how most things seem to retain some of the characteristics of their making, like us, like humans, both those ticking, volatile, detectable elements and the silent mysteries of creation and what things have put us through the fire, have forged us, have made us who we are. We have the imprint of our making all over us, the fingermarks of creation, literal and figurative. So much is still unknown to us, so much still to wonder at and about in the crumbling mortar of our world and ourselves. And what of writers, those of us who tell the stories, compose the poems: who among us can mark the time, the precise moment, when that thing we call our life meets the moment of our half-life, that moment where the steady and precise decline into the final silence begins, that moment when the chatter of our lives grows faint, then fainter, and then is no longer discernible to any listening ear?

photo by Anne Caston, taken in St. Mary's City, Maryland, 2010