The world is strange. The newborn screams appropriately upon introduction, her first trip down the rabbit hole. From a steady 98 degrees she emerges into a huge range of temperatures, a tiny percentage of which she’ll find comfortable.
The world is strange. Constantly rarifying and compacting, our position within it shifts like wind-swept clouds, our velocity measured by a jumpy speedometer. Around the time we locate ourselves we’re somewhere else.
So maybe the strangeness of the world is only in our experience of it. It’s just us. The world appears strange because life on its tough crust won’t bend to our desires. But as our experience of the world is all we’ve got, who cares?
Childhood experience, of course, sets the bar for “normal” in a way that at least allows us to feel something as strange, and after a somewhat normal childhood of my own in a college town, lucky to have intelligent, caring parents, a brother with whom to learn solidarity and compromise, a house and yard, I went to Loyola University of Chicago at age seventeen and found strangeness. When I wasn’t busy stuffing myself down the rabbit hole at Dead shows and in tapestried dorm rooms, I lost my mind at the change from my middle-class neighborhood to gritty, urban Roger’s Park. The tall buildings, seen from jolting el train windows, seemed to lean off base. The streets sparkled with broken glass. Everyone wanted a cigarette.
I remember walking home once late from a party, led in a direction I didn’t know, and coming across what I was told later was the Roger’s Park Zoo. How the hell an economically depressed and ignored city zone like Roger’s Park had a zoo, I do not know. But I walked, unsuspecting, right up to a caged area by the sidewalk and a pair of fat, exotic-looking pygmy goats rushed the bars. Surely I was not all myself at the moment, but those crazy goats had long snouts that when stuck through the bars looked so expressive, I held my breath and listened closely for comment. Their hairy faces struck me as intensely plaintive, and I felt far from home.
At Loyola I met and studied with Dean Young, still my inspiration as a poet, who gave me an insight I needed while I struggled with the transition to the adult world. The word “strange” came up in a class when a student used it in snotty reference to a classmate’s work. Dean pointed out to the class that “strange,” for a poet, constitutes praise. He talked of how strangeness represents the bits of life worth savoring and worth writing about. I loved him.
After college, I spent some years chasing those bits of life, which to me meant writing songs and poems and playing in bands. When a very close friend and band mate died of a heart attack at 27, my sense of life’s capriciousness deepened, and my interest in joining mainstream life lost what little momentum it had previously enjoyed. As the son of academics, working low-skill jobs to pay the rent while chasing some hazy indie-rock stardom felt exhilarating in its strangeness, although a feeling of guilt at an abandoned path remained. I published a short story about one of the strangest of those jobs—exterminating spiders and power-washing decks—in an earlier issue of Atticus Review.
After a few years I managed to legitimize my efforts slightly by finding a job teaching guitar lessons and working a few hours on the floor of a music store. I enjoyed an artist’s lifestyle (or what some would call extended adolescence), writing in the morning, long bike rides and Frisbee with roommates after lunch, late afternoons and evenings in my small lesson room, band practice, gigs. Those years teemed with friends, with health, and an appreciation for living. When I wasn’t working or exercising, I played wiffle-ball with a passion best reserved for bachelorhood. Not even the dark could keep my friends and me from our magic game—we would set up candles around home plate and set a row of them against the run down country house I bought, our outfield fence. You had to listen for the spinning, plastic ball and cut the almost weightless bat hopefully through the night. I’m sure we seemed strange to the neighbors.
I loved those years, but life shifts strangely through its trajectories, and my small lesson room began to shrink. Hundreds of repetitive lessons, waning ambition, the complete absence of work benefits: these factors and more weighed on me. A savior appeared in the form of my wife, Angela, whom I met at my brother’s thirtieth birthday party. Her quick mind and lovely smile convinced me almost immediately to find a new/old direction: marriage and graduate school.
Marriage, even a good one like mine, can be strange at times. Graduate school and teaching composition to college freshmen as a thirty-five year-old geezer: strange, although I enjoyed the front of the classroom. Creating two children—the most worthwhile endeavor of my life? Strange as it gets. Just getting old brings a strangeness no one can escape, an automatic poignancy that joins us. So when do I feel normal, at home, not surprised? When does the space around me seem made to fit? Right within the strangeness like the glint of quartz inside a dull rock—sparky loving moments with my wife, the soft press of my children’s hands finding mine, rocking hard with a funky drummer, two beers worth of a friend’s time, the list could go on for awhile. My spirits lift to realize that in writing.
And even outside the relation of ourselves to the world and to other people, there is such variation around us as to always find something wonderfully strange within it. Dean Young strange. Trees full of migrating songbirds, sun-lifted tissues of valley fog, bugs that look like sticks.
Then there is the unique strangeness of finding myself entwined with the dreams of other writers through the medium of a literary journal, of finding a way to say hello, to say in this strange, gorgeous place, “I’m with you.”
Thank you so much to Katrina Gray, Dan Cafaro, Libby O’Neill, Jamie Iredell, Michael Meyerhofer, and Matt Mullins for welcoming me to your labor of love.
David Brennan’s poem, “Robert Frost, I am Tired of Watching,” addresses (besides the beloved poet and observer) the strangeness of losing appreciation for the world. We tend to look for life in its happenings, but just as this poem resolves unexpectedly, we are sometimes surprised find ourselves more clearly in negative space. Check out how the staccato phrasing later in the poem reflects the hammering of our hearts and the blooming spaces between beats.
A collection of varied and wonderfully specific micro-vignettes, John Guzlowski’s “The Last Day of Life on Earth,” highlights the individuality and scope of a given moment in time. Against the title’s perspective, these moments take on new color—in turns celebratory, harrowing, sad, poignantly unnoticed. The images and brief characters in Guzlowski’s flash fiction piece, stripped of sentimentality, resonate powerfully.
In his story, “The Evangelicals,” Vic Sizemore takes us down the rabbit hole of a heroin addict. Sizemore humanizes his subject with self-awareness, and avoids melodrama when depicting the starkly fascinating details of addiction. The potential negative effects of trying to better others lurk throughout this rich, haunting piece.
Photo by Samantha Marx