Writers on Writing #62: Richard Hackler
A note from the editor: Below is an invitation to Richard Hackler's "Nation, Turn Your Lonely Eyes to Me," a serialized piece-by-piece negotiation of a world in which jobs are shitty and people die and love is really hard. Featuring young artsy people in the Upper Great Lakes region, but you'll also want to share in with your mom, and maybe your dentist and the pretty girl next door and probably your best friend who's been down lately and your students who are wondering why they write. Look for a new installment every three(ish) weeks.
Let’s make a pact, you and me. I’d like us to be in this together.
Let’s pretend that this—this page, these words—is more than what it is. Let’s pretend this page is a space you and I are occupying, that we are sitting together and talking. Let’s say this space is a bar. Let’s say it’s late on a Wednesday, the end of January, and our bar is empty except for us, the bartender, and a few people clumped around a table across the room.
In addition to this, I’d like us to imagine the following:
- Our bar is located in Marquette, Michigan, a small town surrounded by many miles of trees and water and snow.
- We’re sitting in a corner booth, you and me, adjacent to a window looking out at the empty sidewalk and a streetlamp.
- Aside from our conversation, the only other sounds come from the people across the room, who speak in low voices and sometimes laugh very loudly; the footfalls of the bartender walking between tables, and the ringing of empty glasses as he collects and stacks them; and hockey chatter from a television somewhere playing a Red Wings game.
This is where we are, and since we’re beginning our third beers together—let’s say we’re beginning our third beers together—I’d like you to imagine yourself imbued with the hazy lyricism that follows beginning your third beer with someone you like. Let’s say our conversation is slow, that it bends and eddies and pools like a river. Let’s say that, during a gap in our conversation, you drink deeply from your beer and turn to squint through the window, out at the sidewalk, at the streetlamp and the snow flurries circling its yellow halo of light like moths. And you begin thinking: about how cold it is outside. And about the darkness settled over and around our town, about how it’s almost always dark this time of year, this far north, and how you’ve begun to feel this darkness like an extra gravity. Your blood, you think, has been traveling more slowly. Your limbs feel thicker, your bones weighted, and walking across your apartment has begun to feel like walking underwater. You’ve been finding it difficult to imagine anything beyond your daily business in this town, as if even your thoughts have slowed, as if they feel this weight, too, this pulling down, and they form in your head only to tumble out to the ground like rocks. And you will look outside, and think more about this darkness: spread for hundreds of miles around us, over Lake Superior, over the hills and woods outside of town, and broken, only, by the lights of the occasional gas station. The occasional main street in the occasional logging town lit by one or two streetlamps, and the blinking yellow caution lights that mark where these streets flow into the highway. The headlights from the cars driven by the inscrutable people who must live in these towns—towns with names like Bruce Crossing, or Three Lakes—these people who drive, maybe, to bars after work, who drink beer and tell dirty jokes and watch hockey until late in the night, until they say goodnight to the bartender and then drive blearily through the dark to their unlit houses. You will think about all of this as you look outside. And then about us, you and me: the miracle of our booth. The miracle of our warmth in this inhospitable place. And you will keep looking outside—at the sidewalk, at the streetlamp—until something inside of you thaws and rises to the surface. And you will think about this streetlamp: this streetlamp—right?—is a dim prayer against the darkness. This streetlamp is you, and me, and our presence here and this essay, and this streetlamp is sending its light to anyone nearby who might be looking. You will nod urgently to yourself, and truth of this will bloom in your chest like a searing flower: we are streetlamps, you and me. Yes!
And you will want to articulate this, to give shape, somehow, to this rush of liquid thoughts, and so you will try to tell me about it. You will turn to face me, and begin speaking very quickly. But it will be difficult. Because you’ll realize, as you’re speaking, that you’re drunker than you realized. Your tongue, as you talk, will feel like a slab of rock in your mouth. And, though you will try to be precise with your words—you will want to convey this feeling, this exact feeling, from your chest into mine—you will still lapse, sometimes, into new-ageisms. You will speak thickly of auras and energies. You will begin your sentences with, It’s, like, and end them with, you know? As in: It’s like, you and me, we’re streetlamps, you know? And it will be hard not to grow embarrassed about this.
But don’t. Keep going. Speak anyway. I’ll know what you mean. And when you’ve finished, I’ll nod, and tell you that I understand, and drink deeply from my beer and say to you the unsayable things I’ve been thinking and feeling. And I might fail, too. But I won’t grow embarrassed. Let’s make that part of our pact: we won’t grow embarrassed, you and me. Because the point, when you are sitting across from someone you like on a very cold night in January, isn’t to impress that person with the depth of your intellect and breadth of your experience. It’s to feel less alone. Because it’s easy to feel alone in January.
And let’s settle something else before we continue. Who is this “you”? Maybe you are reading this and thinking: who is this “you”? Am I the “you”? Is anyone and everyone the “you”? So I’d like to assure you now that, yes, you are the “you.” Anyone can be the “you.” And while we’re speaking openly and settling things let me confess to you something else: I’m worried that this communion I’m after, the communion sought by me (the writer) with you (the reader), is too abstract, and too much in my head, to make a difference. I worry that the walls of my skull are thick and soundproof, that our streetlamp is burning, maybe, but lighting an untraveled street. And I’m worried that my plan for addressing this distance—this essay, and our pact, and our bar, and our streetlamp—is the sort of look-at-me bullshit writers try before they learn enough to try something else. I mean: we can pretend that we are in a bar but we are not in a bar. I’m alone in my house, I’m sitting at my desk, and it’s not even January right now, I want to pretend that it’s January because I like the urgency that January brings, the desire to sit near someone and to generate warmth, but, really: it’s late September, and morning, and there are bees circling the air outside my window, and I’m in my underwear in front of my laptop and, you: who knows where you are? Sitting on your sofa in some unimaginable New Hampshire. On a commuter train in Phoenix. I don’t know if there are commuter trains in Phoenix. Maybe it’s cold or warm outside. Maybe you are old or young. Maybe you have passed the point at which you drink beer on Wednesdays and talk to people you like in an effort to bridge the gulf that separates you (or maybe you think, as I sometimes think, that it is sad, the way lonely young people drink one more beer and stay out one more hour because they hope, in their desperation, that the circumstances of their loneliness will be alleviated by the consumption of one more beer, the staying-out for one more hour). Or maybe there is no “you,” and I’m only talking to myself right now. I don’t know. And even if you are there, we’ll probably never speak, you and me, and this makes me wonder what the purpose of this might be—sitting inside on a warm and sunny late September morning when there aren’t many mornings like this left, when soon enough it will be January for real, when, if I tried, I could maybe find someone of-this-world with whom I could go for a walk or pick some apples or something. This is a waste of time and energy, maybe, hammering my thoughts into words so that I can commune abstractly with abstract you.
So why am I hammering? I should answer this if I’m going to go on. Why hammer? I’m not a bearded mystic who “needs to write.” I don’t think that my veins contain poetry that I should bleed onto my computer screen for the benefit of whomever. I’m plagued, constantly, by the silliness of this. Here I am on this warm morning, sitting in my underwear, pouring my thoughts and feelings into words bound for no one or an incorporeal someone. Sometimes I compare the way I spend my time with the way people who repair roads or perform surgery spend their time, and I feel the overwhelming need to apologize.
But if you live long enough—say, past the age of twelve—you will encounter something that breaks your heart in a lasting way. You will decide (say) that you are attracted to Heather McFadden, who sits behind you in pre-algebra class, and wears dangling earrings shaped like planets and moons, and sometimes tells jokes that make everyone laugh. You will decide this one day, and will think about her for many weeks after, and will promise yourself every night when you fall asleep, looking up at your ceiling, at the green glow-in-the-dark stars your mother taped there when you were younger: tomorrow is the day I will ask out Heather McFadden (and you will imagine, staring at the constellations spread across your bedroom’s night sky, your future with Heather McFadden: walking with her through a meadow, her hand alive in yours, your bridged arms swinging lazily between you, the grass bending gently in the warm breeze—you have cultivated this very specific fantasy that takes place in a meadow, though you live nowhere near a meadow) and, finally, one day in class, you will wait for Mrs. Novak to turn her back and begin composing an equation on the blackboard. And you will act: you will inhale sharply and summon forward your best self—hidden until now!—and wring courage from the bland pre-algebraic air around you, and twist in your seat to meet Heather McFadden’s halfshut eyes and whisper—What’re you doing after school? because you would like to walk with her to the Super America, and purchase chicken salad sandwiches and slushees, and bring them outside to the grassy area adjacent to the parking lot where the two of you will sit and talk and begin the process of falling in love—you will ask her this, and she will look down at her desk and say, softly, that she can’t, and then look up at the blackboard again, and begin copying the equation in her notebook, her face a closed door. And you will realize, then: all of your feelings, no matter how well tended or intensely felt—all of your feelings might coalesce into nothing. And Heather McFadden, or the idea of Heather McFadden, will drift through your thoughts for a few weeks until, one day, she doesn’t. Until you don’t think about her anymore. And your head after this will feel like a large and empty house.
And, many years later, when you are in a different town, when you are out of college and have a job, you will be sitting in a coffee shop, eating a doughnut, and you will think, suddenly, about Heather McFadden. For no reason you can place! Maybe the barista, when you ordered your doughnut, smiled at you in a way that stirred these thoughts. Maybe, because it’s October, and because the barista is playing Frank Sinatra on her behind-the-counter boombox, you’re feeling prone to this sort of nostalgia. I don’t know. But you will sit in that coffee shop, and chew on your doughnut, and think gauzily of what it means to feel love that doesn’t reach anyone: does it accumulate and turn caustic inside of you? Does it rot like a bag of leaves? You will ask yourself these questions and eat your doughnut in a weary way until your phone buzzes in your pocket, and it will be your mother, telling you that your sister’s cancer has returned and that this time it is inoperable.
And you will think, then—speaking to your mother, your hand hovering in front of you, still holding half of a doughnut—you will think that Heather McFadden does not matter. The love that you’ve felt, and have tried to express so that it might become manifest in the wide world outside of your skull—does not matter. All that can really matter is this bland, faceless cruelty, always present, as commonplace as weather—the people you love will suffer and die, and most of them will do it much sooner than you think.
Let’s say that you have thought these things. Let’s say that you often think these things, and sometimes view your life through these thoughts as though they were a pair of very thick glasses. This is why we’re here tonight: because I want something beyond these thoughts to matter. I want Heather McFadden to matter. I want the things we think about streetlamps when we are drunk to matter. And I want all of this—you, and me, and our presence here and this essay—to form a stay against this cruelty. Somehow. I don’t know that it can. But let’s say that it can. And so we’re here, and I am talking about my life as though it matters. So I will talk: about Duluth, Minnesota and Marquette, Michigan, the faded and remote towns in which I’ve spent my adult life. And here is Lake Superior, a sprawling fact of our everyday landscape up here, which lends to our psyches an airy and serene fatalism (we are small, but it is so not bad, being small), and here are a thousand mornings spent looking at the lake, letting my thoughts form and balloon and drift across the cold water. Here are Sunday afternoons in coffee shops, listening to women in peasant dresses sing socially-conscious folksongs. Here are my friends and I dancing to the music we listen to in bars, and here is the joke we are sharing: that we do not know how to dance, but are pretending, anyway, to be people who know how to dance. Here are the women I’ve loved but ineptly, and here is all of my stumbling inept love. Here I am, sitting up in my bed with one of these women in February. Here is the boxed wine we are drinking from coffee mugs, and here is my t-shirt that says RETALIATE IN ’98: JESSE VENTURA FOR GOVERNOR slipping off of her shoulder, and here is the wind outside and my hand resting on her hip, and here she is saying to me, I’m glad that I’m here right now, and here I am saying back, I’m glad that you’re here right now, and here is my shock that people say such things to each other. Here I am living these moments, and losing them, and finding them again with someone else, and losing them and missing them again, and here I am wondering how much of my life and how many of my thoughts will be consumed by these cycles. Here I am learning how to roast coffee beans in a hot-air popcorn popper because why not. Here I am inviting friends into my kitchen so that we can roast coffee beans together, and here is our shared suspicion: that we are doing something good, that we are making things when it does not occur to others that they might make things. Here is my sister, who is dead. And here is my suspicion: that it is a betrayal of her suffering, somehow, to take seriously and engage a world in which such things are allowed to happen. And here I am trying to shake this suspicion, over and over and over again.
And here we are, you and me, and here is our booth and the cold and night pushing against our window. I will imagine you here until I see you. I will imagine you listening, and in this imagining will be our communion. These words, and everything I’m bringing to them; and your listening, and everything you’re bringing to it: let it be something. Let it matter, somehow. Let it spark and sustain some dim light, and let us be people who believe, still, in lights. Let our voices blend into a song that sings for us some better, larger life into being.
Let us be a light, you and me. Please. I’d like for us to be a light.
Richard Hackler is the nonfiction editor for Sundog Lit. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.