uu 39 – to marcus 2 (luther’s story)


20 August 2016 – Beyond the almost daily crazy that keeps going on out there in the big wide real, there are the littler things we go through as individuals. Sometimes we’re so wrapped up in everything we don’t notice. Such is life. But sometimes it takes time for those things we engage in to develop into memorable moments. And what a difference when they do.

About two months ago I began volunteering my Saturday afternoons to a youth shelter for boys. After a couple weeks I was asked if I’d be interested in starting a creative writing group. So I did. I had no idea what I was doing but I was game.

Nothing came of the first session. I set up shop in the common room. Put a sign on the table—‘Ask me about creative writing.’ None of the boys showed interest. But I kept at it. Posted a notice on the info board. Bought some small notebooks and a box of pens. The second session, again in the common room, didn’t go much better, but I did hand out a few notebooks and pens.

For the third session I secured a small meeting room. In total six boys dropped by, but again, nothing really happened save that I gave away more pens and notebooks.

The fourth session saw some dialogue on writing and was perhaps most productive for giving the assembled boys (there were four) an assignment, of sorts. I asked them to think about how they would like to use the time and space. If they wanted it to be like a class, for example, with me providing some form of instruction, that could be arranged. Or it could be an open door deal, like a drop-in clinic—I would be there as a kind of tutor, if that was their preference. I reminded them that the time was theirs and that the idea was to have some fun with this creative writing thing. As a parting remark I added that, if any of them were willing, they could take a leap of faith and start writing.

Bringing me to this afternoon. Session five. Three of the boys showed up for two o’clock (we have the room from two to three, right in the middle of free-time, which goes from noon to five). After a few minutes of aimless chatter I asked if anyone had any thoughts on how we should go forward with our writing group. Silence. As they each had their notebook out on the table I asked them if any of them had had a chance to do some writing. Two had, but neither was willing to share. Trying to stay positive, I put it to them that for the time being maybe we’d stick with the drop-in format. For today, they could stay and use the time to write, or talk about writing, or even take it in turns to consult with me one-on-one. I don’t remember much of what I said after that but by 20 after I had the room to myself, and in all honesty I was grateful. The wind was out of my sails.

Then Luther came in and one of those memorable moments happened.

If taken as a singular event, the moment itself was a compound of my reading a story he’d drawn in his notebook and various aspects of our resulting conversation. The story was straightforward enough, if macabre. A stick figure leaps off a building, hits the ground dead, and rises therefrom, with a halo over its head, to find a home in the shining sun.

On my first reading I watched the story unfold methodically, slowly flipping each page until I arrived at the end. Though I had some o-bomb reservations about the subject matter (no getting around the implication of suicide), and felt a fair bit of trepidation at the prospect of impact as the stick figure neared the ground, it didn’t seem to interfere with my viewing. I found myself paying more attention to how the story was rendered, as if the penstrokes themselves hinted that this was a fiction, that something good was going to happen, I just had to keep on flipping to find out what it was. And when I got there, to the last past, I couldn’t stop myself from smiling.

Luther drew the scene as an animated serial. On the front of each page he used the left margin as the edge of a tall building and the bottom line as the ground. Page one sees the stick figure standing on top of the building (first line). Over its head is a waxing quarter moon. Subsequent pages see the stick figure fall, line by line, to the ground. As it does so the moon goes through its phases: filling up, waning, disappearing new.

When the stick figure hits the ground its constituent pieces (arms, legs, head, torso) separate. Over a few pages the pieces spread further apart and a pool (unmistakable sign of blood) enlarges to cover most of the bottom of the page. Then the constituent pieces start to move back together and the pool of blood shrinks, though a drop remains in the margin on the right. Once the stick figure is whole again, complete with halo, and it begins to diagonally ascend the page, the drop of blood also rises, at the same rate, straight up the margin, growing into a larger and larger circle until, as it nears the top of the page, it sprouts outward lines (classic indication that the circle has become a shining sun).

The haloed stick figure arrives within the arc of the shining sun (now too large to be seen in its entirety) and the story ends on the next (and, no less, last) page with a smile appearing on the stick figure’s round face.

While I read Luther sat beside me fiddling with the cord of his headphones and sighing—clearly I was taking too long. To his credit he let me finish before taking the notebook and showing (and telling) me how it was supposed to be read: thumb to edge of pages and let the pages fly. The scene came to life in his hands. I was so impressed it didn’t occur to me that I should be embarrassed for having missed the effect of animation.

Afterward we talked about his experience drawing the story. He was edgy and pensive but not at all closed. I asked if he had the story figured out before he started drawing. He said it came to him as it went along. To begin with he just wanted to get to the bottom of the page as quickly as he could. He said that he left it at that for a couple days. Then came the idea of getting back to the top.

I asked if he enjoyed putting the story together and liked what he came up with. He said he did, on both counts. I asked if he would like another notebook. He said he would. I gave him a fresh notebook. He held it in both hands as if he had something more to say. I asked if everything was all right, half expecting that he wanted to share a troubling event and might be seeking my advice (something I wasn’t sure fit within the parameters of my volunteer status). He looked around, as if to make sure no one else had come in the room undetected, then cleared his throat and asked if I was ok with him not using words. I was so relieved that all I could do was smile again. Eventually I said something along the lines of creative writing being, for the purposes of our group, about exploring ways of expressing ourselves on paper etc—a long-winded answer that ultimately came down to practising creativity and the telling of stories.

Luther seemed satisfied with my response. He put his two notebooks into his backpack and slipped on his bulky headphones. But just as he turned to go he pulled the ears of his headphones away from his head and said, ‘Oh, and you know, I was thinking maybe, instead of calling this a group, or whatever, maybe we call it a club?

I nodded and asked him to go on.

‘Like a band of brothers or something. You know? Something that’s just us. What’s it? Exclusive. Right?’

I kept nodding and played my hand for him to continue.

‘This could be like our clubhouse. And, well, maybe we’d have a secret password and stuff. Or a handshake? I mean, I dunno. What you think?’

I said I loved it.

Luther smiled and said he’d see me next week. I sat there at one end of the long table in the small meeting room. Hearing through the open door the distant and dull sounds of adolescent boys enjoying their Saturday afternoon free-time in the common room, down the hall and around the corner. Music, chatter, laughter, pingpong balls and paddles. A beautiful thing.

I was glowing. It was now after three. I got up and finished my shift on a high. Just itching to get home and write about it.

And you know, it’s funny, even if Luther hadn’t turned my day around with his story and his insight, there was still something noteworthy about this afternoon’s session. When I was setting up the room one of the boys, Drummond, showed up early and asked me what I write. Just like that. ‘What do you write?’ I wasn’t sure if he meant what I write about, so asked to clarify. He said, ‘No. I mean, do you write, like, poetry? Or thoughts and ideas. Stories. That kind of thing.’

‘Good question,’ I said.

But as I was thinking about how to answer the other two boys entered the room. Things ran their course and in my disappointment I guess I forgot to get back to Drummond. Not that I actually had an answer. But still.


uu38 – to marcus 1


14 August 1016 – I’ve started this letter a dozen times or more. Each time hoping I’ll get far enough in to commit, or at least not feel the need to abandon ship before it’s even left shore. It’s like I’m waiting for the weather to clear when the real issue is that I don’t have a destination.

Maybe it has more to do with not knowing how to write to you. You’ve been gone a long time. There’s nothing current between us anymore. Nothing active. No present tense. I still see you now and again, of course. In memories. For this I am glad. But the memories, for lack of new ones, are beginning to fade and blur. You’re becoming a figure in a grainy old photograph. I have to squint to define you.

Sometimes I feel the same way about myself. My past self, that is. I don’t recognize the person I was when you were last here. Such a skittish girl. Always so afraid and lonely. It almost hurts to remember. But, you know, this may just be memory playing tricks. Because I was never that way with you. And never ever let on to mom or dad that I was having a hard go. I guess that’s part of what you do when you’re trying to find your way. Pretend.

Life goes on, as they say. Things change. People. Circumstances. Everything undergoes something. And for me, losing you was a big something. It gutted me. Turned me inside out. Seemed so random and unfair. Just couldn’t wrap my head around it. For a while there I went into hiding. Simply stopped trying. Time was adversarial. There was no end to it and I couldn’t muster the strength to do anything to make it go faster. Couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. Leaving my apartment was a trial. I fell behind in school. Self-loathing followed me around like it was somehow my fault you were gone. My shadow wanted nothing to do with me. I couldn’t see straight, and what I could see didn’t look right. The worst of it was that because you were my go-to person I didn’t have anyone to turn to. I was stuck with myself and had to let time do its thing.

Finally, I hit upon the notion of writing you a letter. Like this one I had a difficult time finding the right entry point. But once I did, and all the words started gushing out of me, a kind of personally-driven therapy began. I spent weeks on it. Writing, healing, finding closure. I fell back into a regular pattern of eating and sleeping, went for long contemplative walks, even managed to catch up on schoolwork. By the time I finished the letter I felt better about myself than I had in years (and this was the point—not so much to say goodbye to you but hello to me). The feeling stayed within me and grew by degrees as I slowly came to assume an identity approximate to the person I was with you. A better me. Without the apparent need to pretend.

Right now I can’t pretend to ignore the man prancing about the room behind me. He’s wearing naught but boxers, the phone in his hand blaring elevator music that’s occasionally interrupted by computer voice declaring all customer service representatives are busy etc. Looks like he’s mimicking a spastic emu. Or desperately needs to use the washroom. Knowing the man as I do, either could be true. This is Griffin. My soft maniac of a man (by which I mean he’s prone to being a dope, but only in closed company). A terrible dancer, but otherwise a good egg.

Here, my inclination is to put down something whimsical that captures the moment and subsequently affords me an opportunity to transition to another line of thought while making a clean break from the above—a penetrating one-liner, as Griffin would call it, articulated in a deeply nasal English accent. And since he left the room, about five minutes ago, I’ve been contemplating the very thing (FYI, I did come up with one line: Got netting anywhere). Something else has happened though. It’s just occurred to me that my problem getting this letter started relates to trying to write it as I would a notebook. Not any old notebook, mind you. The one on the desk before me. That I started about a year back (with the lines: “Car in shop. Had to take train in to work this morning. Early early. All those half asleep faces. Everyone avoiding eye contact.”) and finished almost two months ago (with the following words: “Might be time for another letter. To Marcus? Yes. Dear Marcus. About a year ago….”).

And you know what else? I’m beginning to fasten on to the idea that I’ve had the letter right here in front of me this whole time. As in, the notebook is the letter.

Whoa! Head spinning.

This rather changes things. For one thing, I won’t have to tell you everything all over again. It’s already written! No need to toil over pertinent details. (Now that I’m thinking about it this was probably my biggest obstacle—how to spin relevant events in such a way as to keep the proverbial ball from rolling into a quagmire of details requiring more and more detail.) I can’t tell you what a relief this is. Wow. Goosebumps!

(Though I didn’t have a destination at the outset it seems I’ve arrived somewhere. This is one of those intangibly thrilling moments that kept me coming back to the notebook. How good it feels when the pieces you’ve been making a puzzle out of suddenly fit together to form a readable whole. Funny what following words, and trusting your instinct about where they’re going, can do. It’s like Griffin says, “If you don’t at least try to write it down the magic won’t happen.”)

OK. Enough for now. Time to take a break. A good long run to let this all sink in. And who knows, maybe conjure up some fodder for where to go next. You ready?

Got netting anywhere?

Wherever you are?