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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Travel Anxiety


I wake up slightly before my alarm because my body is tingling with tired energy. Everything feels porous because inside I have enough energy to be flooding but outside I don’t have enough to reel it in through my pores. It pours out over the side of my bed and for just a minute I’d fiddle with my phone and turn off the alarm. Assuming I am not fully up would be silly given the experience I have of myself. My Dad is in the bathroom. I can hear him but not how long he will take. How long will he take? I don’t need much time but he could still take too much of it. How long will he take? Probably not long, right? How long does he usually take?

Everything’s ready and lined up but surely I am forgetting something. I won’t think about whatever it is because it isn’t super significant. I have what I need. I don’t need breakfast and there is not much of it that’s quick. My Dad offers to make bacon and toast. What’s the time? 6:15 it reads. 6:15 and we should leave at 6:30. How quickly can it be made? I must have asked that. It’s okay. It’s fine. It’s okay and it’s fine to give up a bit of that time for breakfast. Especially because my parents make it. It is the last meal from my father I’ll have in a while. There’s only Canadian bacon in China and I’d like a last taste of real bacon. It would not be worth it if it made me miss the plane, but it couldn’t. It surely couldn’t because my plane is 9:30 and that’s so many minutes away. I have counted them so many times. Three sets of sixties from when I set out. 2 and one half set when I get to the airport and it should take just 1 set of sixty to wind up at the gate. That leaves one and a half set just to in case of disasters. I have never had more than one disaster at an aiport but it cost two hundred dollars. Two hundred dollars is a quarter of my paycheck. This time a disaster would be the whole of my paycheck. I can afford a disaster but it would be half of what I’ve saved over months of work. But there won’t be a disaster and if there was I’d be ready.

It’s 7 and I am saying goodbye. It is just 7:30 and I am at the gate. There was a longer line than I expected but at the Indianapolis airport this is still next to nothing. You know I was only home for two weeks? Why was I driving to leave so early? If I stayed an extra hour to talk with my parents I’d have been fine. We’d not have much to say but the company’s appreciated on each end. Should I have rushed off? I am bowing again to fearful impulses. At the same time, my Dad couldn’t have seen me off if I left later. Was it a bad decision? It would have been definitively a good one if there was a disaster.

Get this: my layover at O’Hare is only 50 minutes. 50 minutes and O’Hare is very big. If they land me at the wrong terminal I should still be able to get to my right gate in time. Knowing O’Hare there could be a technical difficulty and that could just screw me but truly there’s nothing I could do about that. I’d might as well put it out of my mind because it’s out of my hands. It is absolutely out of my hands. If I had to recheck my bag that’d very likely doom me but I asked the woman at the check in station and she said I didn’t. It is possible she’s wrong because one point in the process has been wrong about the next one before. When I went to Beijing I nearly missed a flight because of rechecking bags. Another time I was actually fortunate because one person said I’d have to recheck bags and the other prevented me having to do this. I am not sure how my luck would be here and maybe I would only know if I saw my bags at that final claim.

Remember when I said the layover was 50 minutes? Kidding, it is 7 hours and 50 minutes. Mechanical delay notifications buzz over the speakers and you should hear the Chinese chatter all around me. Wudian wudian wudian delayed delayed delayed. Rosetta stone just taught me what that meant. I tell my parents and my Mom already knows that I won’t want to visit Chicago relatives for fear of having to return to O’Hare from the outside. I’ve been burned by O’Hare’s abysmal systems before and really I’d have hardly any time with my relatives. But if I’d hopped on the opportunity as soon as the delay came in I could have had maybe 3 hours. Is that so little time to not be worth it? What worries me more than all these missed connections is that now I get into Shanghai at 10 PM. It takes around 2 hours to get in from the airport to the central railway station and get tickets, and by this time the train station will certainly be closed. I’ll have to spend a night won’t I? Will they pay for me? Do I select my own hotel in that case or just a voucher for something near? In the case that I do get my own hotel or just have to find one I really need to have a name an address on hand. Since I often don’t get wifi in China I’ll need to do this now and screencap the results on my phone so I could give them to a cab driver. Actually, if I can’t find an outlet – which at O’Hare is entirely likely – than I really ought to turn on my Chinese phone and take a photo of my American phone’s screencaps because my American phone powers down faster once I am in China and it may not last long enough. If that eventuality happens than I’ll need to ask about a hotel and they’ll point me somewhere expensive and if I pay 500 RMB for a night that is 1/10th of my monthly salary because of a poor phone battery! Heaven and a half, I am really tired.

I could nap here at O’Hare. Thing is, I should nap right before the plane because this would allay my jetlag the best. Though, if the delay shortens and no one wakes me up at the gate I could miss the plane. It might be better to just sleep at the very beginning of the flight, though this would not be as good for my jetlag. I could sort that out when I land but I’d like to have energy for getting to the train station. The thoughts don’t actually matter because I get caught up watching Lynch’s Elephant Man, which is really very beautiful. The movie is long though. It is thirty minutes from over but maybe I should stop it and return to the gate. It is an hour til’ departure but they may have bumped it up. The cafeteria I am in never plays announcements. I wonder why this is, but it is because it is O’Hare. O’Hare is a model of a mini modern hell. I have seven hours and fifty minutes to waste with you, O’Hare. Do your worst. Actually, don’t. Don’t bump up my flight and not tell me and make me miss it, please. Please don’t do that because I am so curious what happens to the elephant man. I really want to know about the movie but I also want to know what happens with my plane. Has anything happened? It is only fifteen minutes until the show ends. Okay, I can wait for the show to end. They wouldn’t bump it up on me. This fear is not so big. Okay, 14 minutes. Alright I’ll pack up everything around me so I can zip out at the end of the movie. First I’ve got the power cord pulled out of the defunct outlet and in my bag. 13 minutes. Then I have my phone and my mouse and my keyboard all back in my bag. 12 minutes. It is me the movie and the laptop. 11. 10. 9. 8. The plane should still be there. 7. 6. 5. It should really still be there. 4. 3. I really hope it’s still there. 2. 1. Why wouldn’t it be there, though? Okay, done! I’ll check. I’ll check on my plane right now. I go through a crowd of teenagers on some trip together with their school. It’s all been managed. Their smiles have no weights on either end. There are still lots of Chinese people here so my flight should be around, but what if it just left them too? It didn’t, it is there.

I buy some books and food before the flight. Is it funny I got Kafka’s short stories for the flight? I adore him as much as every English teacher I had told me I would. Damn you, you insightful souls! Am I really that predictable?…

On the plane there’s really nothing at all I can do so you know I am almost relaxed. I don’t quite sleep properly but the plane’s got loads of caffeine and I am fine. What would I do if I turned into a big roach? I think I’d handle it better than this guy in the Kafka story. He never tried to write a message in his sticky cockroach juice. Damn skippy, I’d write my family a fine I ❤ U in my sticky cockroach juice. I’d like to think my Dad would know to exhibit me sideshow style too so I could at least cover my cockroach costs. Can’t blame poor Gregor for too much though, he’s got a calmer handle than I’d have. Although, his mind is too much on things past his control.

 

~Austin R Ryan

How To Be Alone With Words


Writing has always struck me as an immensely lonely experience. I have put content up on several blogs for over five years, and seen all sorts of fluctuations in views. Sometimes I strike a chord in nearby friends with a wary word of mine. Sometimes I win things with the sentences that I string together. That’s really rare. Most times nothing happens. I have reached out to my nearest and dearest to get sincerest feedback on my best shit but believe me the relief of the lonely is temporary. It is a fluctuation from the form, a brief shift in something fundamentally a thing for me and by me. I based it in solipsism since I was a boy. For me it has been a way to address the words that bite at the back of my brain and stain a page with them. Readers mostly come and go without matching a word of mine with theirs.

I am alright with that. I promise. This isn’t a guilt trip trap to get you to read more, so rest easy and go as far as you like.

A long time ago I was antisocial and hid away any words I did. I disliked the way other people talked and read, so I’d spray whatever I wanted out across a page and assume it’d go misunderstood. These days publishing the things I make is a solid love – but one I forget about. It is something real and often rewarding, though not always so consuming. Both back then and now I feel lonely in writing, even though currently I let people read me when I think I’ve prettied up. There’s nothing wrong with that though, and I am not trying to lodge a complaint or make a call.

I have asked plenty of people to connect to something, and I have had plenty oblige me. It is pretty nice, a great way to socialize. But, there’s a level of love for this thing I do almost rote that’s never really shared and probably shouldn’t be. There is an effort in writing that can’t fully be received when an hour’s write is a minute’s read, so it starts feel solitary – like the smoothness of a final draft hides the mountains climbed just to make it decent. There’s a way that even friends and family will fall off from my collection as it expands, too.

That’s okay. When I was younger I’d get sore about it, but then I got around to adulthood and understood their business better. They aren’t obligated and what they do read is more than enough for me now. When they read, the things they say always surprise me and often light up my whole week. But if I wrote for them – to chase down that sensation of togetherness – then I’d have stopped a long time ago.

I started writing a lot in fifth grade, so it’s been over a decade now and I think I’ve finally learned how to be alone with words. After this time dragging my linguistics alongside me, pipe dreams of a million readers and a bestselling book haven’t died, but I don’t think they need to for me to understand that an actual audience would not divorce the loneliness from writing. I’d still be sitting up alongside myself at night, digging up shallow ground I contrived to be deep to produce another story. I’d still be gratifying the things I found right and feeding or pouring out emotionality to keep myself on balance. Until I stop loving it, all these words are primarily for me. It is unfair to give a gift to yourself and pretend it’s for someone else.

Writing is lonely, but because it is for me. Writing makes me feel alright being alone because I use it to settle the scores I have with myself. It is not a proper way I measure myself, though sometimes I mess up and try to use it as a ruler. It is not a part of my struggle to be a better person and correct my shittier behaviors, though sometimes I’ve slipped up and used it as a soapbox. Nor is it enhancing my career or saving me money, though plenty of times I wished it did both. If anything, it lightens the load of managing all those other things and so it belongs mostly to me. Sharing it brings so many surprises and fine moments that I rarely regret it but in the end it is my way to properly settle with myself when no one else is around.

In America, a person can feel unaccompanied across any number of social circles. No one is bound by their social setting, they are encouraged to be free and fly toward the thing that gets them their personal glory. There’s no yuanfen or reincarnated spirits catching up over another lifetime. There’s often just that lonely feeling in knowing that any relationship can be transitory. I am alone in writing because anyone’s relationship to my writing is just as transitory, floating article to article based on their time tables – and saying that should never condemn them or me. I like being alone in writing, because ever since I started I’ve felt more like my relationship with myself isn’t transitory – Like I am by my own side. As I have come to let friends and family inspire me, I’ve felt our relationships may not be so transitory either. I might feel alone but seldom empty and for me that’s how to be alone with words.

~Austin R Ryan

Do You Miss Home?


“你想家吗?Ni xiang jia ma?”
“Do you miss home?”
“Sometimes.” I’ll say the answer in Chinese but I hear it in English.

There are comforts everywhere you go, but there are more of them at home. The dogs in Changzhou aren’t so sociable. They stick leashless to their owners and don’t bound excitedly over – at least to this foreigner. I have gotten to a low level and given invitations, but never really an answer. Each time it makes me miss my mutts.

 
Weaving through food streets for search of something leaves me wanting the familiar. Chinese food tastes great most of the time and eating out at a good restaurant costs a lot less here. There are some new places along my road that have even become old favorites. A little Muslim restaurant with delicious, clean noodles often thick with seasoning and flavor sustains me through bad days. When I am really missing home, there’s always the Burger King and KFC. Still, there’s a lot of home’s food that can’t be bought here. The light lunch and morning things like snacks loaded with evenly sliced lunch meats, the cheap buckets of solid quality ice cream, the well cooked burger at a reasonable price are all luxury goods that don’t taste quite the same away from home.

 
The food mostly does me good, but when it gets me ill it is a kind of foreign sickness that makes me miss the shaky stomachs and running noses I got at home. The way I feel right now, it is like there are little tears on the lining of stomach nagging me to patch them over with pieces of the place I came from. I have been feeling slight stabs inciting cramps all week, and it almost makes me miss the regular churning of pains I am accustomed to. The way my head aches or my stomach quakes, it all speaks in a different language and I don’t like filling the meaning in anymore. Do I miss home? Well, sometimes I do. Of course I do. It is what I am used to.

 
Things feel heavier here, with kids that count on me to be a certain way and people that practice their English with me. Twisting tongues to new shapes is a daily thing – a kind of Peter Piper plotline to tug on. When I was home there were times I’d look up and feel a feetless upward floating sensation. It was like things were so light and empty up in the blue sky you could fall right out of the earth into the hole of air all around it. Here there are so many sorts of skies, often more full. I have seen some really giant clouds stretched across the horizon here. The way the sky shapes up it almost seems I can see it stretch over the Earth entirely. Even on the foggy haze days where grey encompasses every inch of the distance, the obscured air feels vast, deep, and enveloping. I don’t think I could pull the same slipping away here. My feet feel anchored and mostly it keeps me steady, but of course it feels daunting sometimes. Of course I miss the feathery lightness and the chances I had to slip away back home.

 

When I am sitting at my computer looking through Facebook photos for old Thanksgivings to show new people – you can guess what the feeling is. It is not entirely unpleasant. It is a bit wistful and endlessly sincere to long for a thing like that. There are no questions that need to be asked and hardly any words worth saying. Basking in those old photos feels very full and sociable because it is a conversation with a younger self and an aging moment. All the parts of it aren’t really gone either, they are just continuing on in a different way. I feel fluid in that moment and unified, but each sensation has a bitter side to it.

 
People say that it is homesickness, but it feels pretty healthy to me. I had enough trouble sorting out whether traveling was another way of running away that wanting to run right back seems like a good sign. It is on my shoulders and in my head and around my stomach like my body’s sorting something out. In that way it resembles illness.

 
Sometimes I think it is really the sensation of two houses battling it out. In all my recent dreams I have been living in my old neighborhood in Indianapolis but when I am running from the oddly cold weather here in Changzhou I am calling for a different kind of home. The white walls all have my posters on them and the white tile floors all have rugs that I chose too. My clothes are the ones in the cupboard and hanging on the drying line by the back window. Most of the time all the signs are here and I am with them, but of course sometimes my mind’s wandered back to old placed I laid my weight. There are times I can let it go, and there are times I have to drag it back to get my work done. It kind of reminds me of when my family watched a neighbor’s dog and accidentally let it run off. We found her on the steps of her owner’s home and when we came to pull her away she started barking like she would never get to go back . I can’t tell you how many places there are to go, but there are always enough that two locations can run tug of war on separate sides of a person’s mind.

Folks tell me I talk a lot about my old home, particularly family and friends, but I am happy to do right by the people I am proud of. The little moments I did wrong by them makes the times I rectified stick out that much more. All the funny things in between the good and bad still get me laughing occasionally. Those moments are sublime. Old joys from a shared joke or a strange instant spill back over into the present. When that fresh happiness comes up the original joy of it mixes with the nostalgia of its return and for a while everything feels brighter. There is a subtle sadness lingering in the transience of that joy. It is impossible to hold and one day it will bit by bit slip away, but I don’t mind too much seeing the good go. I feel sad knowing I’ll never return to it but the feeling of it occurring and reoccurring until it gradually fades is the thing that pushes me on to other memories. Old joy is proof of new ones, and old joy dying is the reminder to find the right moment to stand in for it.

 
That feeling of lingering longing for things going is what got me here, a thousand miles away from home and missing Thanksgiving dinners. It is the thing that got to me spend my Thanksgiving teaching native English tips to other teachers. That peculiar melancholy had me listening to a Chinese teacher I work and speak with deliver a poetic paragraph on the nature of joyous living and a real, hard, confession on the frustration of educating kids in impossible English grammar. And I can’t say my Thanksgiving dinner eating KFC mashed potatoes in the company of a new friend wasn’t just as meaningful. I can’t bemoan the feeling of missing, but I always will. It is the feeling of looking back and wanting that’s got me moving forward, but it’s what’s tripping me up too. Try to catch the past and you might miss the present moment floating in all the little things.

 

Do I miss home? Right now I miss it melodramatic, but I am just fine with my bit of missing and reaching back. I don’t always feel like this it is a sometimes thing and it is Thanksgiving here in China so of course sometimes should be right now.

~Austin R Ryan

Airport Sorrows and Solid Ground Smiles


I have made the grave mistake of promising some folks back home a travel blog as I go to Changzhou, China to teach English. If you travel abroad, this is something you should avoid doing. You might think I am just being misanthropic, but if you don’t heed my warning you’ll have the task of adequately recording the sentimental memories clinging to you all the way from one international flight to another. But I am here, and I want to bring a bit of it back home for some relatives, so this starts my second Chinese travel blog.

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Plenty of trips start with a nearly crying mother, I think. That’s where mine really begins. It is the fine point where my mind cordons off old home from roaming. While I am weighing my baggage my mind is far off. Most people look up when they think about things, and my eyes are trained on the massive swooping ceiling of O’Hare. It looms grey and full endless empty space like an international airport ought to do.

My mother’s making anxious conversation with the clerk at the desk passing me easily through the process. I am hearing the words, registering them. But it is hard to respond right.

“He’s my last one.”

She says of me, the fourth to live outside of state and the second to live out of country.

“He’s the baby.”

And that one I’ve heard so often that I can hardly be embarrassed anymore.

“Oh, this is really the hardest one.”

That one slips out, and it’s really different from what I know.

“Oh, I’ll miss you guys a lot. That’ll be the worst part about being so far away.” I say. The O’Hare ceiling curves into endless up and open. The words are token in some way, but you do your best – especially with goodbyes.

Together we haul my two massive bags off to the side to get scanned and tagged. Then I step into the security line and hug my Mother. I had gone fast enough that my Dad did not need to come in, but I hugged him earlier. When my oldest sister Britt left to live in Cyprus with her husband I remember her looking back at us. She was waving, with beautiful thin drips of cinematic tears coming from the corners of each eye. As the line moved and Mom did too, I wondered if I should cry like my sister had. I really couldn’t even if I wanted to. But seeing her standing there in Indianapolis International security is so vividly beautiful in my memory. When she stepped over that threshold I swear it was so singular and dramatic that even near a decade later my head can set the scene in detail. In recollected strokes I’d painted it out so well I can still see the whole airport materialize around her.

Sometimes stomaching forward movement is a forced process, and glancing back seems like it’ll suck you into hell with Orpheus. I respected the way she looked back, brimming up. It seemed courageous to roll up all that past and future into the present and let it wash outward in overload. I am not sure if my heart could even manage it. But I believe you are in part the strength of your family. The O’Hare airport swelters up with the hot talk of time consumed passengers. Everyone’s steamed words boils up to the top of the building and I am with it watching it shift and lurch along in line. I am looking up. Maybe I was thinking about how I wasn’t alone. Most likely it wasn’t so pretty, just something pithy about the trip in front of me.

But I’ll spare you the nitty gritty of TSA checkpoints and layovers and try to highlight what good and interesting I found in it. Chicago goes to LA and LA to Taipei. In between I am feeding myself caffeine and rough sleep to keep upward. My body’s a twisted ball of anxiety, I can tell you that for sure. No matter how bad my memory is, if it is a long trip then I am sweating it. Believe me, I have done it before in several separate forms. Far flung as Spain and close as D.C. and San Francisco I go hours early to airports for meeting eventualities that have rarely struck me.

At the LA airport I am six hours early for my flight and ask an attendant for the gate number. There’s a school group heading back to Hong Kong swimming all around me. On the flight I am packed tight to not touch a Chinese teenager on one side and a woman on the other. For some reason, I am constantly stealing glances. Is this the time to practice Mandarin? I stayed silent since the thoughts in my head sounded too loud.
At Taipei the airport is Orientalized tackily. It has a calligraphy station for anyone interested in dabbling in that during their layover and random Asian topography splattered over linoleum floors. There are people from the States, clearly from my program but I have million other things twisted up in my stomach so I can’t fill up on conversation. Intriguingly, I see early my later roommate standing a few chairs away from me.

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Then there’s Shanghai Pudong, my final destination. The halls here stretch on endlessly. If looking up at O’Hare was something then looking up here was something more. The glass arteries pour us out across at least ten of those flat escalators that carry you and your luggage across terminals. The big red camping backpack saddling me bites on the shoulders some. Normally I am shaking at the baggage claims for fear of losing something dear. This time my heart is really racing. But it can’t even beat for long before the big black bags come pounding out on the conveyor belt. Funny how things work out, someone I’d come to talk to quite a bit at orientation was across the way, speaking on his own anxious waiting.

My baggage is quite a bit. I have to stay for eight months, so there’s a lot to bring along. I have to place a smaller suitcase haphazard on another and roll both away. Hearing so much huffing and puffing, a friendly Chinese man offers to help, but I decline. It’s fine for now. I am on solid ground and I couldn’t care less how much I was carrying.

AYC coordinators meet up with us and in no time I am carrying on conversation. All of our faces are marked with the mixed feelings of eagerness and anxiety. Coming together, I think we all feel a little less alone. I know I do.

On the bus the Shanghai suburbs spin outward and I really feel back. It is a weird sensation, but in some way I feel a simultaneous sense of familiar and far, home and hotel. I had been in this place once before and for some reason it felt incredibly fitting to be back. The sun starts to settle behind rows of buildings constructed to look the exact same. Some stand half-constructed underneath the dying sun, while others sparkle with bits of light while all of them tower over small, squat housing areas with green lawns that sometimes turn to dirt fields. It is not vibrant foliage, not tiered rice paddies, not ancient terraced roofs of palaces. It is only a grey freeway that sprawls out into a suburban nowhere that has rapidly reached out to everywhere. It is a place where people live, will come to live, and will move away from.

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It is China. Lots of journeys start with crying mothers, but most don’t end that way. Most journeys don’t stay in what was given away from an old home, but live in the process of making a new one. Maybe I can manage this. Maybe I can teach like I mean it, make meaningful connections like I speak the language, and live here like I’d like to. I’d be happy to just get close to those expectations. That tight ball of anxiety and nerves in my stomach bit by bit untangles and I feel an easy smile creeping up on me.

~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

Work


Sorry for the not posting in so long! I spent a while working on this poem. It took up a lot of my free time. I tended up a voice and a source of frustrations. I wrote it so it alternates between trochee tetrameter and iambic tetrameter. Try and read it for the jaunty rhythms, or the indecent words! Whatever you prefer.

Work Work Work Work
Breath between your breaks by measure
Work Work Work Work
Measure Meter into pace quick
Work Work Work Work
Haste up pace to stay in high place

Recall all the things you dodged
While with open eyes you dozed
Stalk the single moments missed out
Which one had it hit you should have

Could have torn you up from slumber
Answered your steep midnight hunger
Stomach twists as mad as ever
Did I duck a curing tonic?

I will stand at the assembly
Until I produce the part to
Make me feel entirely me and
Bury regret beneath papers

Work Work Work Work
Get close to heaven holy snug
Work Work Work Work
So angels sing your deeds well done
Work Work Work Work
Salvation too comes costing much

Like protestants on nailing stints
Addressing grievance toppling Popes
Corrupt and people’s steeple tropes
for sake of something greater than

it could end equal or off worse
but only trying leads to change
the devil’s in the details so
on grand schemes lean and hold out hope
that captured gains provide in net

intentions good breeds folk much loved
and time in tiny measure metes
out their ends like all mortal men
a bad word from so smart accounts
can sentence a soul to disdain
so rig the records to keep clean
these acts you own through ink and sweat

Work Work Work Work
Pump out to be completely full
Work Work Work Work
Devour each hour, end empty lulls
Work Work Work Work
Pull in to be swollenly whole

Baby please earn me ring money
Accolades to stay in spade full
Win those “make me messy” metals
Get your sick spouse sweating to the
rhythmic licks that flick along to
Soundtracks of your competence porn

Churn out butter for the little
monster me I slaving made at
someone else’s burning hot stove
Scratch off “make us fat cats” cheddar

Steep your spoils on kids and kinfolk
Spend the rest for stress relief and
Bid a mistress sit on your face
Sip on south saliva hip drips

So we grind away get wild from
Dancing glancing issues off us
Sweetly civil people get drunk
Sniffing skunk scent glugging cleaners
do the daily shit get sugar
on the Fridays gather fuck its
Make them sweeten Monday folgers

Work Work Work Work
To feed the village that raised you
Work Work Work Work
Return to hometown a hero
Work Work Work Work
To be the words your parents taught

Remember all the ways you drain
Your ancestors’ aspirations
How failure cuts a mark on bark
Of family trees for ages seen

Recall all resume mistakes
Distractions you indulge to dodge
The things left half assed on the side
Of empty Ritalin-less thoughts

Where did you let your focus go?
Forgetting things that made you you
The job you do the things you make
The blood that parents passed you on

Let drive and deed out weave your goals
Pull you to far flung fields to plant
Your seeds, they grow they go, like you
They walk, they work, they dream of home

Work Work Work Work
Because it is the only way
At dollars and household hollers
Work Work Work Work
your coffin can attest to how
you inched better measures out
Work Work Work Work
The sweet taste of sugar will sour
So scour for salt to store your food
Work Work Work Work
As grandpa did making your clan
To beat your folks at games they taught
You how to masterfully play
Work Work Work Work
An empty object up until
It fills to sickly prickly burst
Wax on wax off until you get
It off and turn each chore to joy
Since every break turns task and work
When time involved is more than small
Exchange it how you have to that
Work’s pleasure triumphs leisure’s song

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