Instant Ramen


Instant Ramen is like the heat that drips up from a fresh cup of coffee or tea. Instant Ramen is chicken flavored sodium packets that smell like home. Instant Ramen is my most unhealthy healing potion.

When I was really young I got stomach bugs pretty frequently. They may not have come around much more than for a normal kid, but I feel them heavy on my memory like parental hands on my back; I feel them thick like retches over cold toilet seats. When my stomach was a mad sea we’d send it Ramen because the square noodle packet was like a full empty: nothing but sodium and noodles all laced up in tame flavors. Things would calm enough and fill enough to not have hunger pains churn under nausea like earthquakes inside storms. Older, nursing hangovers, it was the same deal – but much less dramatic.

As I got older I thought Ramen might drop out of my home and head but it kept up with me. About two or three years ago I started getting sleep problems and when I’d stay up until I was too hungry to pass out I’d rip the orange packet half open and eat the noodles like a candy bar. Sitting up at 5 AM grinding dry noodles into paste feels a bit weird and desperate at first but after it works a few times it is all pleasant; it is all pleasant to break up the cool night with the tactile feeling of teeth churning.

The Ramen got older too; it grew up with me. When the plainness of it wasn’t enough anymore I’d throw in new spices and learn what I liked on top of the bland noodle base. When noodles and broth stopped filling me up I’d dice up meat and veggies too. It was still a half-assed attempt at a meal – never the best I could make for myself – but it’d keep me running. Sometimes it even felt rejuvenating, breathing the scent in like distant incense, feeling the powder on the tips of fingers like sidewalk chalk, absorbing the odd magic of my ugly instant food. That magic could walk me back through time to when I was feeding friends while parents were out working; to when Dad would drop an egg or a cut up hot dog into the soup so that “it would at least have protein;” to when Mom put ice cubes in the soup so my sisters or I wouldn’t burn our tongues.

Instant Ramen was healing in the way returning to home and wholeness is healing. This food has been there nearly as long as I can remember. When adulthood and identity shifts rattle my mind until I feel scattered I drain the noodles and the broth from the bowl and feel like all the fractals and bits of me fit tight together into one whole.

~Austin R Ryan

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Pointless Stories: Whispers


Did you miss me? Well, I haven’t been gone for long and I have got places to go so listen in for a few whispers I have of my spooky old home. It’s short, I promise not to keep you too busy.

I grew up in an old house that speaks in creaks. It whistles little secrets through air vents and tells tall tales in drafts. Every time I go away, I drift far off and forget about the whispers of an old home. When inevitably I return, the noise always catches me off guard.

Underneath the dim glow of the living room and the kitchen addition, the ceiling fan shakes at its base so hard that it clicks at me. The bathroom has an AC fan and it hums heavenly. Five years old, I stumbled down our rickety stairs. Half the steps are sturdy underneath the press of pounding children. They don’t complain much. The other half groan with a love for the melodrama of their lives, spread on longer than any of their residents’. It is dawn, maybe 5 AM. Young and up too early, it feels like a dream but I’d always swear it wasn’t. A voice radiates from the corner of the living room. At that time the ceiling fan did not shake so hard. I chase it down out of a half awakened hunger. It seeps out from the almost closed bathroom door, the sonority of sweet hums layer over the AC units breathing at my back. In the silence between falling beats, the wood planks creak. “Mom?” I ask the voice to identify itself, but it just keeps humming. Our family is so tone deaf, even at five years old I found it hard to believe it was one of us. “Mom?” I ask again half in disbelief. I pull open the bathroom door, nothing’s there and the voice is no more. Just evidence of how an old home never empties.

The memory entered in through my ears in whispers. I stayed up late that night not minding the slight sound one bit. The groans of old homes have the stuff of half formed urban legends told by anxious kids. Little bits of lore form up in the etchings on walls, words leftover from former tenants. It’s a narrative waiting to be made. Boy, did we make something of it.

My mother tells us – when the topic of ghosts are broached – that when she and my father thought to move, the house made quite a racket. Cupboards closed hard on their own, doors slid shut without a nudge. My second sister and I grew up afraid of the dark. She said once that a little girl popped up and looked at her when she was in the bathtub. When none of my sisters owned up to it, she refused to take baths alone for a while. On my end, I just had a rash of nightmares, saw strange shapes in trees and turned the formless noise of those whispers into something sinister. I had a dream once where a little girl who looked similar to what my sister described, forebodingly demanded I go up to the addict with her. Both of us thought she looked like my youngest sister, if we had seen the same girl at all.

Once two wild wiccans came to our home and said they sensed a spiritual energy. They whipped out a Ouija board and asked to phone home. My sisters obliged, finding something funny in the odd fancy. I would too. The wiccans felt a foul energy on that board and fled. Depending on who you talk to, the Ouija is an ancient occult board game gateway to the ethereal or a cheap piece of wood given a ghostly narrative to spook up sales. Either way, we still recall the odd incident and laugh about it.

When my friends would head over I’d unleash all the stories I collected over the years. It was a means of bonding them to me and my home while adding a luster to this slice of Middle America. Sometimes I did it just because I loved the paranormal. We used to have this old pullout couch crammed tight with a terrible mattress. When I was small enough to fit in its unfolded cracks, I’d climb under with my childhood friends, cover the entrances with a blanket, flick on the flashlight and read something from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. The pictures in those books looked too surreal and wild to be for children, which was why I loved them. Friends, relations, and in-laws that visit say they feel something off, but everyone admits it may just be that we’ve given these whispers a booming voice with all our stories. Who knows?

When I got older I wanted to know. I have always been a night owl. I like the quiet when everything but the house and I have retired. In the dead of the night I’d feel cold sensations sit on the small of my back and spread up across the shoulders like the sweeping of hands and I always wondered if it was just the draft. When I went on the internet for answers the search results were inconclusive. Paranormal forums and boards had plenty of stories but not so much insight.

Years later in college I would sleep in brand new dorms and apartment buildings low on cracks, creaks, and speeches filled with the wisdom of age. At first I did not sleep as sound, but maybe that was just because I was settling in. I felt alone for a few months. Sophomore year was not so bad, save some episodes of sleep paralysis after some between-class cat naps.

When I returned home around Sophomore year the house was full with the components of our growing family, the husbands of sisters. As the youngest people make so much of how you grow, but time seems to work faster for your elders. I was back in the tiny room I had slept in as a kid. In those days I did not get along with that room. The feud went on for longer than I like to admit, pushing me at first to sleep with my parents and then with the couch and TV downstairs. What riled me up, I think, was how small it was (no bigger than a garden shed) and how far down the hall it was (all the way the opposite to my parents and the bathroom).

I had revisited the room a few times before Sophomore year, but not often and not when I had the choice. Bygones had gone by, but I still preferred something more spacious. The night I returned to the room had been cold and I came to bed as late as 3 or 4 AM. I pulled the full set of sheets all the way over my head, balled up, and fell into deep sleep. An hour or two later, heat punctured my whole body and made me shove off the blankets. Then came a burst of icy feeling bubbling in my center and pushing out toward extremities. The heat shot back again as soon as I grabbed for the blankets. The hushed murmur of voices entered through the slight opening of my door. Thinking them to be from family up early, I rolled over and did my best to get back to sleep. Then the murmuring grew louder and louder, voicing in the tones of people I did not know. The whispers packed themselves in denser and denser, each word scrambling faster as time wore on until the air around me felt crowded with conversation I did not opt in to. It burst my tired eyes open and I flew back to the couch in the living room without much hesitation.

I have come back to that room plenty of times when the house got crowded. Ever since then I have hardly heard a peep, at least nothing past the usual hemming and hawing of the old abode. Truth be told, the room I count as my own is much noisier. Various woodland creatures have set up shop inside the walls and some nights they scratch like crazy until you smack a surface and tell them to stop. It drove my second sister out of the room once, but I mostly find the animals funny. In the room across from mine, there’s always a bird nest right next to the window-installed air condition unit. Ours is a home for more than humans and their ghosts.

This time I have moved back in, though again not for long before I am off to a foreign shore. I am back after bidding goodbye to my college life and looking on to see what’s next. By now, I have come to love the little whispers of my old home. I settle in at night, later than I should be up, and I hear the familiar history of this place. The same floorboards greet my feat even as I try to step softly. The same steps crunch and crackle at my approach. Cars whizzing by our dark neighborhood pull apart the night air outside. Sometimes I even think I hear a voice. As I strain to catch it, it slips my grasp like an auditory sleight of hand. It was probably never there, but I don’t mind wondering.

When I go to bed with my fan and my TV blasting white noise, these little whispers comfort me. Sometimes they bring me back to the narrative I have always treasured. Other times they assuage the kind of loneliness that even seeing friends and family can’t resolve. Mostly they remind me that – transitory as things are – they don’t disappear, they just fade.

Thanks for listening in, and sleep tight.

~Austin R Ryan

On the eastside of what west lies


Pardon me
For my sentimentality
Not a shade off from
Some form of
Emotional brutality

I feel far enough
That sad songs
Sing relevance

I wanted to move in a way
I used to
And I wanted to be in the skin
I felt comfortable in

I’ve stretched my arms
And bore my abdomen

But I only feel hungry

I’ve made my bold step
Right here at the gates of civilization
I’ve brandished my meticulous mind
On the details of book learning

Pardon me
For not feeling gratitude
Not a hue off from
Some need for
Inescapable rectitude

I’ve stitched it together all wrong
And wondered if it was because
you never taught me to sow

I’ve filled my ears with urgency

I’ve lost my hands holding on
To things I never needed
And I cannot think of how to communicate
Without using sign language

I am marking the page each day
Out of numerous hopes of vanity

I never wrote for you
And still I hold you to read me

I am perpetual
In my fear of pink and baby blue
I am flippant
In my wanting the broken shower back
I am certain
In that those trees will bear the weight I tried to keep from your shoulders

I never wanted to be carried

So I placed myself on high
And all day and all night
I can only imagine
The confrontation that would
Set my effervescent isolation
Right

I looked at my phone
Thought to set the record straight
But I wanted to be alone today
So I turned it into a shovel
And I told myself
That if I kept digging
I’d break new ground.

~Austin R Ryan

Wide and Wider Still, Part 1


What comes after that breath? I still do not really know. I suppose the simple response would be another breath. If I got more complex, I’d say a step.

I stepped out of my room and towards my internship meeting. It came time to return to the flow. Sea of troubles, waves of worry, or rivers of raving, it did not matter. When I got there we all sat down and heard the head of the program talk. He explained that the American internship market worked like “free love”. Interns and business mingled like eager singles. Sometimes something worked out, maybe for a year, maybe for a ten, and other times it never got off the ground. The applicant and the business kept moving. In China internships work like arranged marriages. Usually Chinese firms can find people to hire. They do not need interns, and if they take them it is to cultivate a connection. Companies allow Peking University to give them interns to develop a positive relationship with the university. Naturally our performance at our internships would reflect on Peking. The pressure started to mount and I felt a little worried. He assured us that most people enjoyed their internships. At worst, interning would bore us. I felt a bit better about it.

I wondered just how I would get to my job and when I would start. After everyone had their questions answered, we filed down the hallway and waited outside of an office. We went in one by one and received a slip of paper with contact information. It affirmed me just to have a number in my hand that I could use to contact my employers. Now I would get the ball rolling. I could start my semester knowing what I would head into. I do not know the veracity of such a self-statement. You never know what you get yourself into. Not fully, anyways. Someone could tell you every little bit you’d see under the sun. You would forget half of what you heard by the time you got to where you needed to be. That’s what gives it a sense of beauty though. That clash of known and unknown. It is all that great black empty space that makes each star seem so bright. Who is to say all that black’s empty if it can illuminate like it does? When I look up the sky seems fuller than I could ever grasp, constantly brimming with something so light or so dark.

There’s a lot to be said about largeness, but in that moment I was not about talking. I got lunch with the kid I met from the airport and we had a merry enough time. Of course, I would end up talking with him little after that. We did not share classes or interests. But sometimes matters of friendship become as much chance as cherry picking. Maybe other men and women dig for gold. I’ll root for the potato’s my nature’s given me. After all they’re hardy! What’s more, potatoes won’t prove me the fool. Besides, gold’s just the standard. I don’t want my friends being sold over the TV. No, I’ve gone cherry picking before, and it’s never set me so right as the dirt beneath my feet.

The rest of the night I spent eating pizzas and drinking beer. Inebriation reduces the way your mind bristles at your skin, that’s for certain. But let me say, I’d take the biting cruelties of sobriety any day. I like to slip from the sensitive surface layers of my brain like any man. My mind manages its reprieves where it can, relapsing to more simple synapsing beneath waves of floating melodies or drifting smokescreens. The only problem’s that my stomach’s weak, and it can’t go flying off the handle like the head. It needs the earth above the sky, and I don’t begrudge it why. It helped my mind all the same to spend a day forgetting how wide the world would get.

The next morning we rode the subways and saw the mall area near the school. What a fascinating thing it is to devour food you cannot name in your native tongue. That’s when I started to marvel silently at the place I came to be. It is a funny thing, because everywhere’s bright, big, and wonderfully conjoined to the same massive pallet of dirt beneath our feet. I stood beneath the buildings spreading wide and far. In that moment the wide blue sky spread out over the endless city. At eye level posh Chinese teens wore T-shirts bloated with broken English, while homeless men and women lay collapsed around their tin cups. It all came out of a different world and it all felt shocking. We came in delivered on the same sort of planes. We poured off the same sort of underground railways. But once I got off the boat and onto the shore, I saw the ocean spread its long arms out. I saw how foreign the far off coast really was. It feels strange and has yet to leave me. I wonder, even going back and returning to the familiar, if I could ever shake it. At the time it seemed a bit overwhelming when heaped all over my worries and cares. I did not think too hard on it.

At the time, I had to start up all sorts of new classes, learn all sorts of new things, and encounter new brands of struggles. I did not really want to face the wideness of the world grinning at me. I would have had it put off another day. Though, it may never have come another day or in another place. It took really going far off from home in a place very different to comprehend how wide the world is. Seeing the vast blue sky turn into endless black space seems all the more illuminating now. There’s a great deal out there beyond me. Beyond even what I know, or may ever know in my short life. But wherever I go, I do feel certain about that now. I did earlier too. Perhaps now the certainty feels stronger. There’s something reassuring in that strength, though I cannot say what. Maybe it gives me something to hold on to while the river roars up to my ears.

During classes I did not have the same feeling. It all felt like a bit too much to grapple with. Luckily classes went pretty well at the start. My teachers all seemed interesting and earnest. The Chinese professors looked poised to try very hard to teach us the language. That was good. They would need the moxie. Learning a language is hard. Teaching it is even harder. It further reassured me to see other students who knew no Chinese. Maybe I was stupid for going to China unprepared. At least now I knew a company of fools just as unprepared as I. As a group you can devise excuses for why you ever made the mistake of it. Can a man in a crowd ever feel like irrational? Though I do not think any of us made a mistake going here. I do not think it was irrational either. We just hamstrung ourselves a bit.

The economics teacher has an extensive English vocabulary. She walks with tremendous posture. Despite being small, she almost seems tall. Something in her bearing seems royal. She lectures calmly and carefully, wondering a bit between each thought. It is not a perfectly clean or energetic lecture class. Still, something seems very interesting about it. I could not put my finger on it. Even from the first day it felt intense almost without energy. I had teachers like that before and still find it hard to explain the vibe precisely. Perhaps my own desire to get my China specific studies made it that way. I remember another kid felt much more bored by the whole affair than I. None of us knew how it would turn out by the end of the first day, anyways.

I would have my economics and multi-ethnic classes once a week. They were three hour long block classes. I disliked the format. I would prefer two classes a week in shorter segments. It would allow us to review more readings and break up the material. Besides that, any subject gets old after a good two and a half hours of sitting. I start to zone out. We would have five Chinese classes every week. We have two on Mondays and Wednesdays. A two hour long class would teach us general Chinese, and a fifty minute class would drill us on speaking. Every other Friday we would have a quiz over the material. If there was no quiz we would have class as normal. The main class had homework for us pretty much every day. I have learned a lot of Chinese. The class worked me harder than most others I can think of. I gradually came to understand how busy I would be.

The understanding became all the more real when I went to my internship. I emailed my boss and asked for directions. He gave me an amusingly convoluted path to follow. It featured a lot of visual association. When I woke up and made my way to my workplace for the first time, I really understood why. The subway was easy, but the streets were not. In a city so old, it becomes hard to lay out streets just how you would like. They get twisted and gnarled into weird paths. People set up in strange places along the way. Sometimes they end up blocking the path. In a city like Beijing, every bit of space mattered too. Endless amounts of tiny human innovations placed houses in all sorts of unsuspected alleys and corners. Parts of the city look brand new. Others look very old. They all mesh and fall into one great clump that is “Beijing”. Navigating that clump can really frustrate someone illiterate to the Chinese language. Literacy is quite the task too. Even the lowest level of letter-learned knows a minimum of 3,000 characters. I did not understand at first why my boss gave mostly visual instructions. Trying to navigate Beijing in my free time taught me why. Even if you could read, they lacked clean, easily accessible addresses. They lacked wide streets falling on a centrally designed grid. Beijing has its beauty. It has its ugly too. In both cases it is a clump. One sprawling, living, breathing behemoth of humongous human energy packed tight. I get a new story every time I try and navigate the vascular networks spindling across this Goliath. Soon I’ll tell you the first of many stories I’ll forget before long. Let’s shatter them and diffuse the bits through memory. Lets watch time tenderize them into something chewable. Let’s watch memory metamorphisize what happened. When we’ve turned into butterflies, let’s fly together and see what became of the cocoons.

 

~Austin R Ryan

The Grand Send Off


Bit by bit my travel plans materialized. Each step steepened their reality. At the start of the summer I told people I planned to go to Beijing. I did not feel the meaning behind those words. In life and in travel we head to destinations we have an idea of. I longed for that idea. We do not know the exact of our endings. Rarely do I long for something I’ve never glimpsed.

I remember my beginnings. I hope not to forget them. I began this trip with the summer. I did not acknowledge it then, but I started the trip to Beijing as soon as I got back and got a job. My family could have generated much needed revenue for my living in Beijing. I wanted to contribute. I wanted one less thing to worry about, but I got much more.

The pink and baby blue color scheme helped me find my way back.
My old home

The beginning gave me more to think about than I bargained for. In the first month of returning to my home town of Indianapolis from my university in DC I realized that I would not want to return to my old hometown. DC beckoned with its full list of opportunities and events. I love my hometown but it lacked. No one told me what going to DC would mean. Maybe I ought to have known. I believed it meant space and nothing more. I believed I would return to old friends and family and live in Indianapolis. New friends and interests run deep in DC. They feel like currents carrying me from home. Going to DC meant living far from home and learning to give control to the currents carrying me. Living in DC meant missing friends in Indy. Moving to DC placed me in a tidal flow much harder to enter than to leave.

The idea of home started to shift. Home felt far away during the summer, bottled up in a university and town I knew only for four semesters. Indy no longer meant the same thing to me. My old Hoosier social circles percolated out across the states. I still see many an old friend during the summer but by the day that I graduated less and less people would await me in Indy. Naptown lacked the attractions to keep us entertained in our wild 20’s. We had to scatter to sow wild oats. These Midwestern suburbs raised children. So many of us thought we needed more to become men, be it the distance of an hour or ten.  How it surprises to lose a hometown.

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Early on in the summer I did not consider what going to Beijing meant. The physical distance of my travel symbolized the length of reality that separates the old and new. I would find my family for Christmas again and again. But my time with them dwindles from summers, springs, and autumns to the winters. My family and I would never diverge. My friends and I will. In the limited winter breaks, I never know who I will see and for how long. Lost friends loom like a monsoon flooding out currents old and new.

Just days before departure I dropped by two friends. We headed to my house to relax. Over the years we developed a habit of taking night time walks through my neighborhood. The neighborhood featured three blocks, three esplanades, three large fountains, six rows of houses, one town hall, and a veil of ancient trees. We stepped underneath the moonlight pouring through the cracks in the veil of leaves above us. The fountains poured away as we talked. I wanted to fall fully into conversation and empty every inch of me. I could not. Fear gripped me. It created a harsh irony. I wanted to say goodbye to so many people, but every time I tried the muscles in my mouth froze. I was moving on. I was moving on and I chose every step. Grief and greatness arrive in the same strokes. These steps lead to the edge of a cliff. So we plunge.

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My friends and I trekked to a gas station down the street. We bought unhealthy snacks and soft drinks and ran amuck on sugar for as long as we could. It threw me back to the way I used to be in high school. Looking back could not distract me from the path ahead. Beijing dominated my mind. Studying in such a foreign land felt like distraction enough. I chose to layer it with the thought of slowly shifting into a new life.

The Open sign at the gas station buzzed to life letter by letter. The word tried to flourish all in one glow, but did not coordinate properly. I knew things were still open. I knew I could change paths after Beijing, DC, or elsewhere. The old signs just did not glow with same life.

Perhaps I should look for symbolism in more important places
The old Open Sign

My journey starts with goodbyes. I start with a broken down open sign outside of a gas station and drive to O’Hare international airport. It feels dramatic to me, but I am not putting on a production. This is just what happens. This is how we grow and fall away into new currents and flows. People do this every second, every day. All the while they think as madly as me. Not everyone goes to Beijing, but we all travel and we all reshape ourselves around newer and newer settings. I have got no claim to a great story. Likely, you won’t uncover anything crazy, different, or worth reading here. You’ve only got my eyes here. I will give you what they have to offer as I go. If you truly want a good look, you’ll have to brave the waters yourself.

~Austin R Ryan