A particular kind of distress.

2016·03·13

There are two particular memories I seldom, but once conjured vividly replay that feel unfortunately germane to present days. Both are from prepubescent years.

First, there was that summer memory full of laughing, picnicking, big wheel races around our horseshoe-shaped neighborhood that hinged off a main road. An elongated U. Its bend descended between the two terraced halves of our street and provided a perfect gravity for us kids to learn the rush of throwing-it-into-neutral, long before licenses were in our dreams. An invisible and arbitrary finish line crossed the street at the bottom of this arc, a line demarcated by the stout black iron and brick mailbox at the end of my driveway, a placing for which I vehemently politicked in typical childhood committee shouting, exerting my logic, selfishly, whatever it was, for an obviously aesthetic potential.

I recall that day was some single-digit birthday party of mine, and I was, as any kid then, high on celebration and sunshine and Ecto Cooler Hi-C and blissful ignorance and life.

Riding my Dukes of Hazzard bigwheel, I furiously pumped its two fixed pedals in recumbent glory, intently, toward the crest of the hill, knowing, since I was unusually large and powerful for my age, somehow, that I would celebrate this day, this big race, my special-day championship (it had to be mine), soon.

I would just let go.

I reached the apex with plenty of headway between my trailing friends and so I simply let go of the pedals: The rush of sure winning, of hearing my family who had assembled at the bottom of the driveway in raucous applause, hot summer air wishing over chlorine-sapped flesh and through my crummy rubber flip flops as I laid back in my General Lee-orange plastic bucket seat and threw my feet up in the air and over the macho black handlebars. This, I then thought, this feeling of freefall freedom, was all.

And like the naïveté of a teenaged new driver, the physics underneath that sharp, hilled bend conspired with the lightness of the day, the helium consumer-grade plastic, and the weight of my pudgy white ass, and in the typical slow-motion horror of unforeseen black ice, I fishtailed on a bank, snapped askew, barrel-rolled and extracted my right foot’s big toenail against the approaching grey concrete curb, landing amongst the frictiony sandpaper of my neighbor’s gravel driveway, perfectly in front of the faux finish-line family grandstand and its flag of black checkered white.

Thereafter, I can only recall the screaming sizzle of August hydrogen peroxide and gritty blood cascading into my parents’ bathroom canary yellow sink. I remember the absurdity of gauze and Band-Aids and a lower-middle class family without sufficient medical insurance. That, that was all.

Scribble, ink on copy paper, Chris Rusak 2007

It wasn’t until months later in a subsequent winter memory that I was first able to willfully acknowledge the presents of laughter and ridicule some of my opponents gifted me after my last-place finish. It happened on a snow day, the kind of school-free New England snow day which creates a silence that mutes even the loud faraway laughter of sledding children, leaving only muffled, chainsmacking echos of passing snow plows and sand trucks on the turnpike that lie just beyond the deep rim of trees protecting this world. Our neighborhood, with all of its fine, steep hills, was a sledding wonderland, an Olympic wonderland, each backyard a different luge track, each neighbor’s layout a different wild west hide-n-seek frontier. Ten a.m. bootmarks revealed all the yards our congress of six- to twelve-year olds chose for the day’s events, each sunsoaked depression a sundial, a measure for snow melting, and that day we trekked far from the arc of the horseshoe where most of us lived.

One party of us, one emotionally united team, readied at the top of one particularly steep, superfast, icey track, a track necessarily crafted by cooperative, overweight sleigh-downs and handpiled snowbumpers. The others stood waiting, chatting, critiquing and soon refereeing, at bottom.

I don’t recall why or what or how it overtook me — and it overtook me, because I was an otherwise passive, timid kid — but evidently underneath a blisteringly cold dearth of reason inside a freezing paralysis of emotional rancor, a childhood logic and fear manifested into a sounds-good vidication. As an imaginary green flag fell and another medal race began, in those short seconds of freefall I irretrievably swerved my sled into a neighbor, the one whose face I painfully remembered pointing, laughing at my bloodied foot and cries, taking him out, summarily, swiftly and hard, crashing, together, into the side of an unforgivingly frozen above-ground pool.

What? How the fuck did I let this happen? As a child how could I muster this? So quick, reactionary. So puerile and stupid. So angry. So relieving.

No adults were present and the scene was youthfully grim. There was an asthma attack (my victim), a panic attack (me), and several kids frozen in the horror of emotional unpreparedness. There was blood, but nothing catastrophic, just suggestive of it. To catch my breath I played the scene for an accident. The were for others fierce runnings-home to retrieve help, mostly to catch their breath, to make sense of my madness. There was the victim’s mother running, perpendicularly, painstruck without a coat, through backyards and down the street, a snow-crunching sight I clearly heard and saw upon looking behind my back.

There was a permanence of memory — a permanence of history — of regret, and of silences that lasted long after we all left that street and went somewhere else. There was a colored inevitability of remembrance that could never be killed.

There was nevertheless a head-held-high walking-home — to a singular house, not the homeness of community — of satisfied retribution, for once, one, that for many years, felt a proud moment, certainly so in the infancy of that memory’s time, one, truly, that really relieved the powerlessness elsewhere in the unaddressed context of my life.

Those quiet, simple words of a childhood internal monologue, an illocution faster than the angle of that downward slope, unconscious even, manifested as an actionable conviction that to wash the laugh-stained blood from my memory, many of them, I needed, to draw around it, more blood.

This seems historically to be some primal human narrative: Reason softly; apply the big stick.

The fires of reactionary violence need only a puerile childhood logic and sophomoric sounding words to ignite, the sort of engulfing hydrogen convictions, blown into ourselves and out to others, that big sticks will suture emotioned dissensions and zeppelin us from our sufferings. Though they are often loud, they are most forceful when whispered in our silence, for the loudness eventually, surely dissipates into accessibly soft, easing echos of memory. The hisses of escaping fuel need one silent spark and no more. They are the kind of words, too, of passionate/less speeches, that hide from us the real wolves perched inside surrounds, in escape forests, waiting, for us, to run toward them, away from a hunter’s sonorous cries to arm.

The problem now engrossing our country is also one of memory, of forgetfulness, of a primal taste for the blood oozing in a depressing two-class war, the blood of a rotting education corpse, the blood of leaden rivers, the blood of an industrialized food supply, the blood of slavery, the blood of an owned information machina. It is a taste for the blood of an enemy that has been timelessly written for us, a colored everyman whose faith is a socioeconomic system other than the religious one we have been repeatedly led to believe in.

It is the blood from a heartbeat rhetoric of belief, and not a thirst for the waters from a river of recently traveled history.

The epochs of enemies who have crafted the world in which we now decline — leaders, their jurists, their financiers and industrial machinists — have riveted and fitted for us a recumbency of entertainment and basic sustenance, a New Wild West landscape, a territory of duopolistic governance as anarchic reality show, that distracts its riders from the historical actions which led us here, from the science which forewarns of our idiocies, from sled crashes by the very candidates — their jurists, their financiers and machinists — receiving their trophies and airtime under hot canopies of light. The whole system depends on the profits from this manufactured absurdity and the manufactured absurdity is paying the employees of the system. The relevant political duopoly, then, becomes not one of asses and the tusked, but of celebrity and historian: A party who distracts, a party who reminds.

But the staging is still duopolist. It is, to be said loudly again, again, again, a redressing of us versus them.

The political affiliations of today have become utterly irrelevant. They are meaningless merit badges stitched onto lapels in order to attract a certain kind of attention and indicate of a certain kind of accomplished accord, a successful carving of soap or a meritorious selling of boxes of unneeded ideological crap to raise funds for the sashes that go over the lapels. Even the red herring of a Supreme being, a fear of future judgments rendered, is a complete construction of fearful belief manufactured in order to distract from the sponsors funding the whole show. It is an aura necessary for a global product whose first ingredient is authoritarian fear. Yet, the power this Supreme being holds is unfortunately real, this being of our own creation, unabashedly endorsed on each slice of currency and each minted coin, each recitation of allegiance as an indoctrination into new epochs of children — a sledding of belief into their memories. It is a slogan beside a brand name: In Fear We Trust

The allure of authority is real, it quiets the painful silence of walking into death alone, and death, if you listen, itself, too, has now become a marketable product.

But when the collective leaders of a system — when society — is funded on all sides by the same narrow group of authorities, a group that increasingly allows itself to consolidate, privatize, and hypermonetize basic human necessities like shelter, sustenance, eduction, information, privacy, opportunity, and cooperation, the theater of democracy increasingly must sustain itself on the participatory entertainment of increasingly violent reaction. The voting process is simply a carrot fed to the audience during each intermission. So, when the wolves and the hunter dine on the same bloodied kill, in what hole shall starved rabbits hide?

The palliative of a spiteful leader who feeds the cries of hungered emotion outweighs the painful silence of rotting with an absent solution; the promise of food tastes better than the bitter reality of growing starvation, never mind the lecherous comb-over of predators or pantsuit oligarchs bearing sweets and zipties. Never mind the bankruptcies or ivy league allegiances, just be sure to keep making the memes — soon they will be your only soylent.

When challenged with manufactured suffering, and renewed continually thus far from a pendular menagerie of leaders we must keep choosing — groups of candidates essentially first chosen by the same financiers, from a unitary system, whose lifeblood is a necessary profitablity in their direction; groups monetarily knighted for election and then sustained along through political execution — groups chosen for us, the electorate’s primal response of fight or flight eventually must kick in, lest we forever wear these circular shackles. Absurd reactions should be expected, reflective of the absurd society to which we have been self-subjected. The insanity of cycling around yet again must eventually outpace the insanity of downward indolence. Once an inescapable silence of futility surrounds you, and the pains of memory ice your track, a slick ride toward any of the screams of promised relief seems sound, despite the bloodied crash you know, somehow, must happen, will happen.

If we allow ourselves to lose and forget our histories again, and again, and again, we will continually fail to realize that it is the unnatural elements in society — particularly money and manufactured technologies — that imprison us in a system which supposedly unites us. When sustenance is barely attainable, education and access to knowledge is further erased, privacy is purposefully eliminated, entertainment and advertising reign as the basic palliative currency of a thoroughly electronically mediated society, its celebrities reinforcing the imaginary dream of entry into the better above class, once the knowledgeable historians have been sufficiently silenced and ignored by the financiers and their machinists, the primal reality of emotioned violence will seem revelatory, relieving, and perhaps, then, blood or no, a real humanist revolution might become believable.

· · · § · · ·

All around the campfire.

2016·03·10

Scribble, ink on copy paper, Chris Rusak 2007

I love when you smudge out-of-doors, when you burn a handheld forest, and the birds come, hearing the smoke.

The scent itself has no sound, unless it joins crackles, hisses, exhales of jailed steam.

Unlike the coprophagic electioneers who wash it all down with the laughably loud stilled waters of indolent governance, promising us but feeding them: Mangia mangia.

They smell, reek, from every direction but toward the deep pockets above. They screech a national flatulence. They await the masterful fingering of their poppeteers.

Oh but to (un)plug and mute them.

What must we smudge in order to rid ourselves of their oligarchic breath, their executive pyramids moated with LEOs, mane-stroked lions performing the ars gratia artis of their capital law?

Their sharia, for the indebted.

Hymning circular poetics of distraction, they, speaking-in-tongue talking heads of the illuminated sect, the downloadable class, the mobile mouthpieces, the nightly preachers. The anchoring which a mass, née propagandist media heaves upon us, elucidating them, stunning us.

Such screens, forest-phalanx chorals for state(ly) obedience. The opera of operative.

What must we burn? What must we smudge to summon the buzzards? What is the sound?

Is it playing dirty if everyone cackles, clucks, and pecks manure for dusted seed, having been collectively pushed into the mud? Turn on the shitstorm and dine beneath applause.

Must we burn?

· · · § · · ·

March.

2016·03·01

An underlying thread of frustration, which sinuously reconnects itself to present experience, a stolon for depressed pauses, always retraces to a futile root.

A florescence of meaninglessness, from seeds of insignificance that spread fields of absent emotions, upon which one may nourish, distracts from hungers underway.

Scribble, ink on copy paper, Chris Rusak 2007

Adjoined to this body, a mind sits inert yet throbs. Circular fear and fresh dissatisfaction shine in and reflect off memory. Then, an ototoxic wind that moves nothing bellows. Old hope quaffs off lachrymose regret. A rotting starts. Queries for blown red lights in the past dust up: Maybe I should have stopped? Maybe I disturbed time. Maybe despite the late foggy night, the wet mirrored street, the absence from sight of someone watching, that slight feeling of hydroplane from such a fast pedal, maybe I should have obeyed that red, stayed there until… Maybe I was meant to stop, and wait, to wait for a bright green “Go”? Now, have I already sped past that waiting moment, if it were even there? And so now, inert, I sit today for something different to blow through.

A virescent Bermuda turf is terribly hard to kill, let alone remove. Deep-rooted and pernicious, to till it, a typically destructive act that murders many other grasses, only renews its tenacity. Its blades spread three ways: by subterranean rhizomes and surface stolons that laterally pervade any unprotected territory, and by sinking roots which vertically anchor from these sprigs. Destructive division hastily multiplies its already indulgent surface area: each indefatigable sprout-ready millimeter, waiting, patiently, for a touch of water. Upward-gazing cloud-swept daydreamers sprawl upon Bermuda’s years of tangled regenerated growth, pallets of stiffened, strawy tuffet that rebind after every overhead mow. To roll onto one’s elbows and stomach and pry one’s fingers through the afghan, to jostle its network and torque inevitable splits, just pulls the hair of a maniac who laughs at the pain and makes poetry from the scalping.

To easily kill Bermuda grass, one would use chemicals, repeated, delicately placed applications of phytotoxins that progressively dull each blade’s ability to photosynthesize. Agricultural starvation. Strangulation. A method of reverse poisoning that stunts by intoxicating the newest growth of the plant in order to deprive, eventually, the roots of a future. Alternatively, the method of solarization — the harnessing of sunlight over the course of weeks to bake and asphyxiate turf enrobed by thick plastic — will do the trick. Sterilization. Forced decomposition. A long opera of hyperthermia like erecting a golf course on the sun. But to try, laboriously, to dig out all the sinew and succeed, to find all of it, is futile, and years from then, as any master gardener will tell you, the Bermuda grass will reemerge and remind you of your failure.

The browned lawn of memory is no different. For all those efforts of drunken nights inebriating oneself into stupor, for all the labor of sabotaging the present to X out the past, for all that sweat from exercising the body to exorcise the mind, it’s not until we rot and bake or poison ourselves too much that the rhizomes of our past seasons will recoil and retreat from their invasions into today, yielding to our desires to make something else of them. To even resolve our histories is just to add another tufted layer to them.

Scribble, ink on copy paper, Chris Rusak 2007

The moth flits herself against the closed screen door, a carpeted room just beyond. Toward a concrete patio she eventually plummets, where her wings retract and vibrate hardly a few times more. A pause. A jerk. A quick flip onto her back, now gazing toward the hummingbird feeder which hangs above from the eave. A jerk. Another flip. She slowly crawls to where a clear plastic wheel runs on its umber metal track, trying to snake herself inside. No luck. The bunker of windswept sand against the rail creates just too much of a bar. She tries again, but relents. Inside, the cedar closet would probably just swallow her up anyway, dying beside celluloid shells of the others perplexingly lying along the edges of wall in such a repellant, lightless room. She keeps crawling to the farthest edge of the screen and hustles herself up into that depression between the tracks. She turns over and lays motionless, gazing once again, briefly, her wings’ camouflage indiscernible from the sand and painted finish and the later memory of the gardener who will soon return and till her, from tip to tip, as he enters inside.

The ignorant gardener wets his dusty hands and sweaty, mottled limbs, hopefully scrubbing any renegade glyphosate that might have splattered onto his skin. The sun-baked, bristly hairs of his forearm, hardened from the hot years of tending to his colorful beds, sprout once more.

· · · § · · ·

Lavender burnt.

2016·02·08

On the way to Joshua Tree proper from the Low Desert by way of a west-easterly boomerang on California 62, one passes several vintage shops on this gusty drag at the corners of such streets named like Geronimo and Cherokee. Inside, amongst the rando touristy tchotchkes and overpriced nostalgic absurdia, between artisanal soaps and license plate art, one often finds the simple pleasure of rolled, dried foliage for smudging, and on one recent trip, wild local lavender had been made cylindroid by some blessed desert celebrant and put, tagged purple and marked $8, in a basket on a low obstructed shelf, waiting for an olfactive radar to catch wind.

A unique find, unlike the common, taut white sage stick, the stacked airy branches of lavender dry out into a more hollow tool, easier to light, and chromatically a velvet-brown that just hints of its once-violety iridescence. Upon ignition, the burner might often be surprised: the smoky effusion is musty, like a not-entirely fallen backwoods fort, and less typical of the pastoral fragrance so commonly known to refresh through summer inhale.

I recently roasted some coffee, an organic small-lot Colombian and a dry-process Brazil, both, in particular, suited toward a lighter fire than long. My primary coffee tastes and my present roasting gear both, however, skew toward long. Nevertheless, any fresh roasted coffee is a good one, and any instance when a roaster goes beyond a firing planned begets a batch of beans for diversion.

Smudging, too, is a roasting process, its immediate product one of smoke — burning as brewing. And, for anyone who knows the pleasure, roasting coffee is a smudging, too.

The recent experiments with the Colombian and the Brazil to find the edges of a light fire brewed into something that did not ignite atmosphere with heat, that is to say that when brewing coffee by a hot process — drip, French press, et cetera — the chemical reaction between heat and grounds causes an inflorescence of aromatic flavor, typically reacting upon acids. In this case, two South American coffees lost their sense of terroir, that delicious dirtiness of Earth that those regions are excellent at expressing in cup, and leaned instead toward the fruited quality one expects of an African produce.

The interesting thing about coffee roasting, about coffee smudging, is that the process expresses multiple dimensions of smoke: wet mossyness, smoldering hay, charring wheat, chocolate, charcoal, and death. The progress is the best way to gauge the level of roast. In other words, the best way to produce brewable coffee is to know how to breath it.

A smudge stick will offer you multiple dimensions of air consistent with the intensity of roast you give it, as well. Unlike cedar, which preternaturally resists attempts to ignite its dried wood, lavender has multiple rev-ready gears to pleasure.

Coffee, after a hot brewing, like a fine wine, is, at its best, a staged, occasionally stilted, presentation of chemistry. It deserves torque through all stages of transmission.

Tightly stacked loose-dry lavender takes fire with ease. The torque can be fierce. The smoke comes quickly. Whipping the stick back and forth like a squeegee to aura, the herbs smolder even more, like harried puffs to cold campfire suddenly enlivened. Because the stems of lavender are thin, thinner than cedar, resistance to a persistent burn is negated, so depositing such a stick into an extinguishing damper is not always successful, as these evolved wicks efficiently draw air down through its pocketed leaves. A mildly hot stick of lavender damped will smolder peacefully and reveal notes to its smoke, unfelt handheld or waved by. The key is to understand how dried foliage, in the ritual of smudging, is a type of transmission, a type of stick shift.

There is something about coldness under which olfactive identity really screams; the acridity of a starting engine, or the memory of a winter’s barren front yard for any midlife New Englander. Cold(ness) has its own smell. Yet the cold acts as a turbo.

Despite losing its earthy character, and despite, unfortunately, having took up just too much roasting smoke, the individual sets of Colombian and Brazilian beans did need a cooling element even long after their exposures to heat took hold. Frustrated with the individual hot products of these two roasts — foursquare, but not for the better, mostly, over-smelt coffee like a corporate bellwether — I mishmashed the two batches and hoped the resultant atmospheres would be cooperative. This hot brew was no improvement, initially, so mugfuls found themselves sitting… sitting… sitting…

Yet, aren’t there few activities better than sitting after a good smudge?

I noticed, tonight, while sitting, in the dark, on my patio, underneath star blanket, that my lavender stick shift, next to me, was smoldering, damped.

I brought it toward my face to sense the heat coming from inside; the embery orange glow was imperceptible in the ambient Low Desert light around me, and the whole stick was indiscriminately warmed from the active burn. A facing would certainly do.

Cool frankincense — the recognition was immediate and vivid.

Desperate, the day before, for a rush of caffeine before I ran late-Sunday errands, but without the time to brew a new cup before the stores began to shut, I found somewhere, waiting for me, an abandoned cold cup of the South American mishmosh brewed maybe four or six hours earlier. Cool frankincense. My senses did not first believe it, but second-sipped, it was true.

Chemically, the main constituents of lavender, coffee, and frankincense typically differ: lavender, primarily linalyl acetate and linalool, common volatile compounds especially present in herbs; coffee, loaded with gustatory, heat-transformable fatty acids; and frankincense, offering thujene and incensol acetate, a union of typically herbal and eponymously incensed air markers. In general, these three elements sit on disparate sections of an olfactive color wheel, across different parts of a sensual valley.

As the sun sets behind the city of Joshua Tree, coyotes, one by two by twenty, howl and coo. The symphony is upsetting, daunting, and revelatory. Joshua Tree proper sits in a bit of a bowl-like valley itself, and so the reverberation these creatures create conversing across town is a proseminar in echolocation. Stilled, quivvering from High Desert nightchill and a subsiding, but thudding instant terror, one isn’t entirely sure how close or far these beasts sing once their song blooms. And so many of them seconds-in — now fifty by eighty by two-hundred-plus. This song happens in heat, too, for instance, in the solitude, due north, of the Mojave National Preserve while a full moon above sweats under a 90-degree nightfall. But the cold desert valley, like a New England front lawn, seems to absorb the usual and transform the hidden, enlivening the often unnoticed elements of an atmosphere into a momentary, inescapable smoking of the memory. The cold hardens, cleans our palette.

Research exists that frankincense causes psychoactive brain activity, and too much coffee makes one hallucinate, and the erotic grip of a breezy lavendered hiking trail captures private, frisky lovers from the outstanding world like no other. And underneath these and every natural element, ready to burn, inherent antitheses wait to boomerang us around our expectations.

· · · § · · ·

Cedar burnt.

2016·02·05

Of the many smudge sticks ready to burn, cedar, to my experience, is the most stubborn.

Cedar, a venerable wood, capable of holding insects back from enclosed spaces and ever so fragrant, stills, way beyond that prohibitive demarcation. When wrapped tightly around several structural dried stems, the khaki-green tendril leaves sputter and crackle as you try to set them aflame. Smoke, the objective goal here, comes reluctantly; it must be forced with repetitive plunge into fire. Jiggering this crackler and imposing onto its negative space proximate air, gentle balsam puffs finally come to.

Fortunately for those of us who burn through this stubborn ritual, this scrubbing of atmosphere with controlled conflagration, the cedar smudge stick is sufficiently pungent, economical, thrifty for its effusiveness despite its miserly yield, uniquely identifiable for its supra-dimensional character. It somehow booms assuagingly under silence.

Why smudge? Whether one takes a theistic perspective or pagan — is there truly an underlying difference? — the theatrical, aesthetic, olfactive modification of proximate space also (un)marks, or smudges, mind.

There are those who smudge to expel spirits, erase thoughts, to push back that which resists give. There are those who smudge to paint a room a certain color, perhaps as backdrop to a certain sound. There are those who smudge simply because it smells lovely. There are those of us who need fire, in our hands, pulsating.

Whatever the case of its user, burnt cedar certainly acts as a repellant, not for gnawing insects, but for emotional chiggers subterranean and absent in sight. It avails the sublimatingly visible, smoke, and the invisibly evident, scent, to map for and direct, respectively, the ignited celebrant toward dogged bites.