Mulberries


The walk to the nearest grocery store is about 20 minutes in whatever weather Changzhou has for me – usually rain and wind. I call this local Tesco the fish market and if you went in I think it would be clear why. All along the way up to Tesco there’re a lot of things happening but in Tesco there’s even more going on. There are two floors to it, the first having clothes and shampoos and anything else you shouldn’t eat if you can’t help it. My little fish market isn’t so packed on the first floor but ‘packed’ is relative even past the normal standards for most adjectives and it’d be too crowded for a lot of folks I know back home. Up top where the food is it gets truly hot and hectic.

A kind of low-sloped escalator walkway leads slowly up to the top floor where all the heat has risen and sticks around in glops. Right out front are the bread, fruit, and fish sections where most people crowd around to inspect the fresh food for the freshest food. Kids are clamoring and people are talking up more hot air to feed into the already hot and healthy glops. The glops crowd around with the smell of fish and bread and fruit until eventually things yield into pre-packaged things such as Oreos and other big cookie and snack brands. All of the checkout stations wrap around in an L at the front – the smaller side of the L being quick shop stations that are rarely open. After a normal ten to fifteen minute wait with my red bag bloated up with daily things I step out of the whole place back into the relative cold.

Along the way a friend says she’s nearby so I go looking a little bit and after not catching her come into a chain bakery called Bread Talk. In China most folk don’t have ovens or like to bake so there are bakeries everywhere. In the back of the warm and orange tinted Bread Talk there’s a row of drinks packaged with deep primary colors that stir me. I go to the one with blue so dark it nearly seems like velvet. It’s shaped like a little jug and the top is wrapped off with a cloth on top like homemade jam. It’s mulberry juice.

It feels cold on the edges of my hot fingers just recently roughly wrought by the hard and heavy pull of my red bag full up with food for the week. It’s not competing on price but I am buying on feeling so that doesn’t matter. As soon as it’s sold I peel the cloth wrapping off and twist it open. It is cold and deep and rich.

My best childhood friends live down the block and a little ways away from a mulberry tree whose sweet fruit hangs its branches low. We were lower stooped back then but reached up enough to pull the mulberries down and I remember my friends introducing that kind of taste to me. It was sort of like a blueberry in taste, without the sweet bite of sugary juice. Blueberries are tense capillary fruits with thin skins full to burst with juice and flavor, but mulberries have a more mellow grind – like a less intense raspberry.

It is cold and deep and rich. I am ambling back to my home in Changzhou on muscle memory-based navigation because my head’s back underneath that mulberry tree; I am clinging onto branch like those rich little berries. That day the skies were gray in China but I was looking up and feeling the light blue of humid Indianapolis summers. There were white clouds above me, white clouds as fluffy as my thick sighs after each greedy glug of the deep blue – almost purple – juice. I am home in Indy now and walked the family dog underneath that mulberry tree. I had forgotten how all the berries fall and stain the concrete sidewalks with smatters of purplish blue and bluish purple. I had forgotten how small it really is now. Despite all that the sky is really just as wide and just as blue; the clouds are still fluffed up as Midwestern sighs.

~Austin R Ryan

Between Two Homes 4: Handkerchiefs


Travelling through Shanghai was a mess. People communicated less well than in Changzhou despite knowing English and the signs made less sense despite directing more folk. After searching and asking around for a train that leads straight to the airport I gave up and decided to take the metro. This was easier to manage but trying to get tickets I stalled for a bit which allowed a lady to come up and help me with the task. It turned out to be a scam for money on her end and I realized if I made a fuss she’d leave but staring at the strange hope she had clutching to ten yuan notes it all felt kind of petty. I gave the ten RMB up.

It made me remember visiting NYC for the first time. Oh right, you clump up people and they get strange. Often times they get outright terrible like heavy traffic grit’s gotta make you gritty too. I don’t like it but maybe it’s just the function of what’s made my form. Growing up with Indy’s small city politeness and then studying in DC’s company town professional aura makes the aggressiveness of real metropolises seem ugly. Maybe not always ugly but rarely pretty.

There was another foreigner looking at the subway map the same time as me. I left early but he’d catch up with me later and we talked a long time. He had the modern man kind of cut with short hair on the sides and back and the rest product-ed upward slightly. This was something I’d look to do with my hair later. He’d been in China for longer than me but hadn’t studied it as much. Most English speaking foreigners did not have a direct interest in China and more a curiosity for a teaching job. I can’t fault that at all given how crucial employment is even just for the confidence of a person. I was just lucky interests aligned with a position. More and more I am realizing that.

I think we were each agreeable and sharing a travel struggle so we hung around one another for a while. He had confirmed what I suspected all along and told me I was being underpaid at my current job. Effectively he was making double my salary and it was something I suspected at the beginning of my program. The way he put it down I think he wanted me to be madder than I was but honestly I had a feeling early and accepted the cheaper payment because I wanted a way into something interesting. It had provided that. In a conversation compromise he admitted he’d have done the same as me out of that same impulse to get moving. Don’t mistake the jostling of salaries as much – it is common practice in China and one that bled into us. I can count on both hands how many times I’ve been asked my salary. I enjoyed the company of the man kind of like me, living here at the same stage of life doing something similar.

China had invigorated him and working here made him reluctant to even visit home. I did not pry but his history intrigued me from the bits of it I snuck peaks at. He was going to be a cop but decided to go abroad first. He had been in two long term relationships that had ended. I had been in just one but the way he described the meandering and hesitant aftermath thick with frustration and distance resonated in an easy way. He was a native Floridian. Of the few Floridians I have met, none have seemed to like their home state yet. On my end I was excited to return to old home from new and have a nonsensical pride and love for an average Indiana that would probably forsake me on my weirder traits when the chips really hit the table. But that’s all unnecessarily cynical. At the end of the interaction he talked about going to Changzhou and I felt no problem opening my home to him.

We got to talking about handkerchiefs. This sprung from discussing his time in the Philippines which sprung from discussing travel. He posed the keen question of where I wanted to go or end up and I answered noncommittal because there are only two cultures that naturally called to me and now I vacillate between them. I am not that interested in seeing the world for all it is. Travel feels burdensome.

The Shanghai airport is properly looming and full of empty air. The ceilings are so high that birds could nest up there somewhere, though they could not live there. I have seen a solid number of things and my memory gets hazier when I add more. Living in a place – I’ve only done that three times. I could stand to do it a few more times.

Anyways – handkerchiefs. In the Philippines, as he told me, a lot of people use them. I wondered at the practicality of it because a tissue seems like a one use thing and after that use you’d rather not touch it much. He said that they were more useful through being washable and that most folk just kept a big store of them on endless rotation. Later on in the flight I’d watch The Intern, which felt so distinctly well made along average standards that it confused me. It felt like a thing people would examine later to determine changing mores in our day – or just a movie that would safely appease every family member. Handkerchiefs were an oddly central theme and a kind of stand in for a polite and un-intrusive masculinity the movie saw as nearly lost to modern times. It was strange enough to run into a dialogue about handkerchiefs in real life and stranger still to find it in fiction right after. In one day I had heard more arguments to carry handkerchiefs than I had in the rest of my life. The arguments to carry handkerchiefs were effective but as I am heading to back to China there are still tissues in the pockets of my fluffy red jacket.

~Austin R Ryan

Stray Observations between Two Homes: Night Skies


Travel isn’t a contiguous experience in my memory. It starts out that way but as the memory of it gets rusty only abnormal images in the transit stick out and the rest of the connecting bits between them disappear. I won’t tell you how I boarded my flights. I don’t really remember anything but stray observations so that’s the best either of us will get – what a generous person might call vignettes. It is not chronological either. Don’t get on my case about that – think of it is an artsy thing concerning time’s potential shape as line or a circle or an exotic fruit. And I know I have been keeping you waiting too, but I am still technically on vacation. Sorry, that is an unfair excuse for me. I’ve lauded this too often as a passion to pretend it is pure work now.

There were two clear skies in my travelling. The first one came before I had left physically but well into the time my mind was too eager to linger in Changzhou. I had come back from my normal dinner walk out to a strip with some chain restaurants. Since I’d return to American food I went to a western place to accustom my stomach to big meat proportions. I’d made a mediocre effort to meet a friend there but the cold was biting so we’d both stayed close to our homes instead. When I went back outside I made my normal walk back but I stopped twice because the night sky was clearer than I had ever seen it in Changzhou.

The first time I stopped inside a small circular plaza with streets that shoot out of it like tendrils penetrating into pertinent parts of the city nearby me. It was incredibly cold and incredibly quiet to the point where both things felt biting. Thin and dry equally, the silence and the cold had similar sets of teeth and I liked the feeling in a short measure. Then the cold started to seep in through the thin threads of my gloves so I kept on.

Second was when I slid into the tendril that spits me out closest to home and had walked a little bit down the road to my school. Out there I felt I had to stop. It was strange because I felt like I was settling a debt to the city. Maybe I was just acknowledging the clear sky it gave me before I was leaving – that is a kind thing. It probably sounds pitiful to you but it was stark to me that in the vastly dim sea above I saw a few speckles of light sailing around. It was stark and very kind the way they shined like they knew my metaphor hungry mind was chomping at bits for that kind of business. There were just a few sparkles but that kind of clearness was rare and I could even feel it in the way the air was only laced with coldness as I breathed it. Then my hands got cold again and I went in sniffling and numb at the ends.

When the second clear sky came I only looked once. The second clear sky was in Indianapolis. Mom had just grabbed me from the airport and we were making the familiar drive into the city lights toward home. It was kind of a meager skyline and I recognized every building. The little lights of still illuminated windows and blinking signals stuck out in the dark and helped shape out the skyscrapers. Above the sky blinked with at least twice the speckles I’d seen in Changzhou and for a moment I lost sense of my context. I looked out the window and said, “what a clear night! I can see a few stars.” My mind was still in China and my eyes were still smog spotting.

~Austin R Ryan

Changzhou, Indianapolis, and Loving the Average


A while has passed and now I have lived near half a year in the city called Changzhou. I have travelled the nearby cities well enough to lose my camera while drunk. Would you like to see some stellar pictures of Hangzhou? Well, I can tell you some pretty swell things to Google. If you’ll give me a thousand words or so I’ll paint you an odd view of Changzhou.

Here is what you must understand about Changzhou: it is middling. It is the burning embodiment of average raised up on an Eastern heavenly mandate. I can hear you wiki’ing in the distance this city along the Yangtze and wondering aloud how four million folk in a place with three thousand years of history could ever be average. That is China for you. That density and age make for a notable place is an American notion I carried for probably pretty long and dropped maybe three months after living in Changzhou, Jiangsu, China. Density and history are near everywhere where I am now.

Jiangsu is a notable province in China. Look no further than Jiangsu for behemoth megacities, former capitals of long-lasting dynasties, mountains, rivers, and beautiful gardens all along banks and the slopes. When you look just don’t dig at exceptional in Changzhou. Just so you know the dynasty that sat capitol on Changzhou – metropolis formerly known as Wujin or Piling – only lasted around a year. There are rivers and canals in Changzhou, but they don’t compare to Suzhou – the Venice of Asia. There are woods and parks in Changzhou too but the city known for lakes and trees – Hangzhou – is two hours away in Zhejiang province. You will find plazas and historic streets in Changzhou but understand that in Nanjing the plazas memorialize massacres potent and lingering ugly on the sticky start of the 21st century and in Changzhou the plazas are right outside of amusement parks. The historic streets in slim little Wuxi stretch out for a while in devotion to old kingdoms enshrined in classical literature. Here I have to be fair because Changzhou has a historical boulevard sprung up from famous ancient literature too – only it is just one block of one street lined with some very high quality comb shops.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Here is where I get brutal and desecrate my hasty made Chinese home like I am a dog with no shame. The unexceptional nature of Chanzhou is welded straight into its name. Chang (常) means ‘average’ or ‘common’ and Zhou (州) used to mean ‘prefecture.’ Zhou might just be the most common thing to fix to the end of a Chinese city name. If you got one solid character on deck to describe that riverside Chinese city you are building you just slap zhou on the other end and get business moving. What this means is that Changzhou was deliberately and consciously named Averageville potentially as early as near 600 AD. That name fits all five fingers and lines tight right around the wrist of this place.

This is where I tell you that I am not being mean, that I am actually being loving in my honesty. This is where I profess my love for the average over a long and slipshod drawn comparison of two average homes I have known. I have judged Changzhou for being boring, dull, and riding the median line. I have made my fair share of jokes, calling Changzhou “too chang” for the cool things other cities have, but the ugly truth is that my hometown has no room to talk. Let me confess – Indianapolis is the American Changzhou.

The linguistic lineup should strike immediate. Though Changzhou does directly translate to something like “Averageville,” indirectly it may as well translate indirectly to Indianapolis. American naming conventions are far too furiously erratic to name a place Averagevile, but Indianapolis comes close to that mark. Polis being the Greek part of city, Indianapolis is effectively Indiana City. Even at its historical root it would have meant Indian City which is impressively more generic than the current iteration.

One of the funny things that happen when I introduce myself to Chinese folk is most guess I live in Shanghai. I say I am not, and they say, “No! Maybe you are in Nanjing?” When it becomes clear where I really live they just ask why. What am I doing here? Why am I not somewhere else? It is funny to me because when I meet a curious sort of soul in Indianapolis – maybe an odd foreigner or just a transplant – I ask the exact same. Hey, why are you here? Nice to have you and all but Chicago is three hours up that way. Did you consider Memphis? Minneapolis? Both Changzhou and Indianapolis sit in the intersections of more interesting locations and leave you wondering whether folk are just wandering through. For me it does beat living in the far rural fringes where everything feels distant.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Don’t get it too twisted. These two cities may lack in naturally interesting things but they have their ways of recuperating. Amusement parks are one prominent answer. Changzhou has three amusement parks right inside of it. The first and foremost is the actually renowned Dinosaur Park which combines exhibits of fossils with a small collection of rides and a massive assortment of intriguing dinosaur-based entertainment and scenery. It is hard to describe and you’ll have to see the pictures below, but the makers of Dinosaur Park must have feared that giant Jurassic lizards were not draw enough so they decided to couple it with an odd medieval theme. All the statues of dinosaurs wear fantastical armor or a kind of generic court clothing. Further into the park the aesthetic turns to gears and a color-saturated steam punk setting. The statues are all over the place and a deeply strange fusion that is just too curious to begrudge. By the end of the day I wanted all dinosaurs to wear armor. Dinosaur Park costs quite a lot and only has one really solid roller-coaster, but it is worth a visit to see the strange conglomeration of dino-themed water park, amusement park, museum, theater, strip mall, and children’s center. Never did I feel quite so strangely at home and detached from the face of the Earth as at Dino Park. The over priced gift shops and restaurants shacked up with rickety roller coasters and nearly fluorescent children’s attractions are in the Midwest as much as Florida. It is just that in the Midwest they are not near as famous.

Changzhou’s second park is a personal favorite and a bit underrated. For a notably cheaper ticket you can make it into a theme park centered on a history you won’t find in the US – though the commercialization of it may feel familiar. Called Yancheng Park, it actually has a proper park with some interesting history just alongside some pretty cool rides, and you can read my larger two part story on it here and here. The third and last is CC Joyland – a regular old theme park – that I have not visited and cannot guide you through. A cynical side of me screams that these quiet places have to twist up ugly plastic shapes to make fun.

Yet, there is a soft and sincere side of Indianapolis and Chanzhou dwelling inside the regular parks and it can soften any cynic no matter how pretentious. Hongmei is Changzhou’s biggest and most known park, with a massive reconstructed pagoda right alongside a small lake. It has a wonderful little viewing pond where flowers gather and shine underneath the sun. I found a dead turtle there and took several pictures. Outside of the water and the temple Hongmei did not strike me as having much but I have been spoiled because almost every Chinese city has at least three very good parks. In fact the reconstructed pagoda at Hongmei’s center is one of the largest in the world and deserves its own due. On top of it you can see the grey haze of rapid industrialization settle on the beige, brown, white, and light reddish identical apartment complexes spread out into the endless horizon.

Another park called Xintiandi sits right near me and has no famous attraction to speak of. Though people don’t know it, to me it feels much more artfully constructed and definitively more modern. Xintiandi opens with a large black obelisk that touches the sky and has a meaning that I have not pieced together yet. Little pools of water in between the main walkway after the obelisk lead up to a large pond or small lake that reflects the newly built malls, offices, and apartments of the Wujin district. To the side there’s a wide grassy plain where people sit and play with families. I have seen grandpas flying kites with grandkids, grandmas gathering in multiple groups in different sections of the park to dance together, parents and children seeing talent shows, and runners getting their daily exercise in at Xintiandi. When I come back up from the large white slab that is the Golden Eagle mall to the south of Xintiandi I walk across a bridge with translucent hard glass planks. Little kids stare down at the lazily moving water. I have seen more than one set of wedding pictures taken on that bridge.

The black obelisk at the entrance of Xintiandi reminds me of the Veterans Park in Indianapolis. It is just a small stretch of green maybe two blocks wide in front of the ever large public library but it opens with a black obelisk thinner than at Xintiandi but lined with gold. In that park I have also seen wedding pictures. Children have tried to sell me school drive candy and sometimes I accepted and hopefully pushed them another dollar closer to a prize toy. I have seen middle aged people practice tai chi together and had one man tell me how it helped him beat his cancer. I do not know much about science but I’ll believe that quiet and passionate spirit can triumph it.

I have ran up the clean marble steps of the World War II memorial in Indianapolis and looked outward at the slight bunches of traffic accumulating. Laced underneath my own breathing is the gentle hum of engines gently whirring in stillness as they sit at lights. The way the white noise picks up into a managed roar as green replaces red sounds like bubbling rapids. I have never known living in anything but city and for me the hum of distant cars feels like river water constantly overturning and lapping up against itself. When I am stepping steadily through Xintiandi or even just walking past the dancing old ladies on the way to my grocery store the noise of constant motion dimmed by distance slides subtly underneath the noises in the foreground.

Maybe you look at me like I am trying to escape the serene hum of small cities. I have never made it a secret that I’d love to live in the West Coast where the sun always shines or Chicago the sights are endless. In college I skipped the Midwest without two thoughts and settled into the stunning marble of D.C. In China I studied in the unbelievably immense urban sprawl of Beijing and when I sought work I aimed for Nanjing – the glorious former southern capitol of a few notable Chinese dynasties. I ended up here in Changzhou, my Chinese Indianapolis.

But I am not too aggrieved and I am not trying so hard to escape. I said facetiously to a dear friend that Indianapolis had prepared me for urban mediocrity. It was facetious but it was not false. Indy prepared me by making me love the average as it appears in the friendliness of neighbors and the slick sound of cars coming and going. Changzhou does not carry the art and culture of Shanghai and Indianapolis does not carry the art and culture of Chicago, but there’s plenty that feels great in the average and plenty that feels average in the great. The people in average places will drop what they carry to help you. Average places can pause and slow pace because nothing in their identity seems pressing. In smaller cities, communities will hold you tight because for all that ‘standard’ doesn’t do it also doesn’t ask that much of you. In NYC, DC, Beijing, and Nanjing life has slapped me in the face with strangeness but in Changzhou and Indianapolis I’ve squinted and found near as much of it. In Changzhou people try to know me and I try to know them too. In Beijing I was another unfamiliar face.

Well hell, screw the East and the West I was born in the middle and I’ll probably end up interred in the quiet dirt there too. Some days I may want a more glamorous metropolis but where I live will never change where I was raised. When a big city swallows me up none of my hometown identity will die. The churning pearly white skylines of modern metropolises can’t scrape the small city simplicity off me so I might as well learn how to find the bright spots in the dimly lit cities I have come to call home.

~Austin R Ryan

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

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

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

Pointless Stories: A Stroll Down Michigan


Most stories I’ve told have points or directions. I decided to ramble for four pages, and this was the result. This is my pointless story.

In Indiana Minimum wage is roughly under eight dollars. I believe it stands at 7.75$ an hour. Working at a cafeteria downtown I earn around minimum wage for each hour I spend manning the register. The folks I work with are polite and for the most part older than I am. The place has a pleasant energy. One fellow looks a lot like my boss, which has caused me occasional confusion when trying to ask the right question to the right person.

The clientele of this urban kitchen are middle aged marketers and members of that business class that goes to work semi-formal. I find the culture a bit of the workplace a bit strange. My employers did not seem to mind me missing two weeks of work due to miscommunication nearly as much as they minded my unkempt hair and clothes that strayed slightly from uniform standard. At this point I am happy to have the job. My Midwestern homestead is bloated with young college students searching for scraps of paper.

I work five miles from my house, but still I like to get a ride to and from work. I clocked out of work at about 2:30 PM and strode out of my steel tower. The One America building, they call it. One of Indianapolis’s humble skyscrapers. It was made for business though, and unless you have business in it, you may as well keep outside of it. I pulled my phone out of my black jeans and found it dead. I pressed the power button, holding on to some shred of hope. It blinked on just long enough to tell me it did not have any power left in it. How useful. I stared at the hot sun and let my phone sit in my palm.

I felt the temptation to throw it. My father and I both had a way of exhausting ourselves with rage towards the smallest of roadbumps. We are both devout Buddhists. I never knew with him, but the irony of being an angry Buddhist proved too much for me. I bit down and chewed on the anger for a moment before swallowing it.

I got past the unfortunate fact that I forgot to charge my phone that night, and walked towards home. I decided to make some use of the occasion, and stopped off at the library. Downtown Indianapolis underwent some beautification recently. It always had some beauty. I cannot remember a year this city did yearn for something to be proud of. I am proud of our central library. At 6 stories it is no hulk of a building, but it sits a pulse away from the heart of downtown as a mesh of old and new. An expansion to the building gave it a bright new futuristic glass edifice attached to the Greek styled columns of the old building. The organization of the books was a bit haphazard, but I managed to find the Hemingway books I was looking for. I picked up a Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut book too. We are all proud of Kurt Vonnegut here. Granted, we aren’t so proud of his odd respect for suicide bombers. We aren’t the kind of city that produces such bold opinions. Our prominent politician was a quiet family man, who won respect by being good with numbers.

Vonnegut’s books were surprisingly hard to find in our library. At this point, I thought we’d have a small shrine dedicated to him. I am sure we did when he died. I left the library with a back of books heavy in my right hand. The afternoon was pleasant. The sun blazed, and in my black clothes I felt the heaviness of the heat. People were smiling though, and the city seemed in an amiable mood. Our city runs on a grid. I started to wander home, because I knew that if I continued to feel like it, I could wander all the way back.

I walked past one of the cleaner looking homeless people by the mall. He had a little dog with him as well. I glanced at them. The dog looked well groomed and the man not too unkempt. I generally ignore homeless people, but I have a tendency to engage more than most of my friends. This city is not filled with twenty somethings trying to scrape their way into a grand destiny. This city does not have metros for homeless people to sleep in. This city is filled with family. We won’t shoo away a straggler, our hospitality is wholly Midwestern, but we won’t carve a place out for them beneath our eyes.

I walked lazily through downtown with my bag of books swinging at the end of my right arm. The bag of books periodically rammed me in the back of the leg. I would readjust the bag’s flight path after each time it hit me, but I would ease my right arm eventually and let the bag hit me again.

My leg got tired of taking hits and so I decided to find Michigan Road and take it back to my house. The road was a straight shot to home, but it wasn’t scenic. If I wanted scenic, I would have gone down Mass Ave. Mass Ave is the self-proclaimed arts district downtown. The art on the street is the modern kind you learn to forget quickly. We had some notable artist put in a display of that cookie-cutter woman used on signs swaying back and forth lethargically. She lacked a face. She simply swayed and swayed and swayed through the humid air. I always wondered who we were impressing with that display. The orange, pixelated woman moved lazily and rhythmically, unchanging every single day. As far as I saw, she was the most lifeless thing in the entire city. I much preferred the giant mural of Kurt Vonnegut or that giant black and gold obelisk we devoted to the memory of America’s wars.

The best part of Mass Ave aesthetically had to be the sidewalk. At some point, my fair city decided to expand the sidewalk, rebuilt it in a dark red brick patterned with some cement blocks. The crosswalks were colored green or blue and stretched wide. Purple signs indicated that this was the “Cultural Trail” of Indianapolis. It frustrates me that people don’t like to put things into context. Mass Ave is a nice place full of great stores, but decades ago, it was not anything special. Decades ago, it did not matter much more than the rest of the run-down east side of the city. What culture does that trail run you through, if you are visiting?

The construction of all the fancy things in Mass Ave blocked off the roads long enough to kill a few businesses too. That little video store I applied at once went out. Now I think a gardener’s moved in. Luckily, most business that went out were replaced. Mass Ave is the gay area of town. Statistics show that making your area of the city a little gayer will make it a bit more profitable too. I can’t say I know why one man’s choice to suck another man’s dick helps my city, but it does.

I did not go down Mass Ave though. I went down Michigan. Michigan’s got plenty of cars, but little else. I walked across the streets of the old city, before renovations and cultural trails. There wasn’t much shade from the sun, and my black clothes started to stick on me like they were good company. I started to read Hemingway on my way home. The book bobbed a bit as I walked, and the sun glared heavy on the words. I found it hard to focus, so I got through one of Hemingway’s many short stories about war before I left the book dangling in my left hand. I lagged on past the part of Michigan that intercepted Massachusetts and appreciated that old German theatre, bar and eating establishment on the way. I started in on the part of Michigan where I could still spot the interesting theatres and establishments of Mass Ave. I crossed ways with a man who seemed half interested to talk to me. He was in a hurry to find Ohio, and the best I could tell him of the street was that it was somewhere downtown, in the direction he was headed. I could have led to him to Pennsylvania or New York, even Vermont or Delaware, but not Ohio. He walked on in a hurry.

I kept on my way and found the tavern and store of spirits that seemed perpetual. I had seen that tavern since I was a kid, and I wondered what in the somewhat shabby place kept it from floating topside. Not too far from there was the entrance ramp to I-65, my little conduit to the north of the city. I-65 connected me to my old school and to my old friends too. Most of them lived up north in suburbs lined with houses that stooped at the same low height. Indianapolis stretched out for miles. The blood of the Hoosier city flowed out seamlessly into smaller suburbopolises in all directions. I never liked the name of any of the suburbs. Beach grove never seemed so scenic. Carmel is not a sweet as it sounds. I have never heard of any fast times in Speedway. I’ve never found Zionsville to be a haven. They all have their character, but I never liked the way they masked it behind those names. Every single one sounded more appealing than Indianapolis, more meaningful than Michigan, but I could not think of anything I ever found in those places, beyond a friend’s house.

They were all safer than the stretch I walked. I might have just hated driving to them enough to dislike the places a bit by proxy. Maybe I just never got the hang of their flavor. Perhaps the silence of it never sat well on my tongue. I felt safe serenaded by sirens. I felt energetic, engaged by unfamiliars. I think I just got sick of kids stranded in suburbs insulting my city like they ever knew it. Perhaps that was the snobbery I would bear, being raised in Indianapolis proper.

I walked underneath the overpass and past the entrance ramp that provided my portal to far off lands. The train tracks that came up a bit past the entrance ramp I remembered well. More than a few times, a train derailed my efforts to get somewhere on time. Unless you spotted the long queue of cars and anticipated the train, you could not turn quick enough to find a detour. Even if you did find a detour, the tracks spread for so long that half the time it wasn’t worth the effort. I glanced down the train tracks. They led for so long down such a flat path. I passed an old man with a bushy grey beard and weathered skin. He asked me for the time. I had to ask him to repeat himself, because I lost myself crossing my old tracks. I told him my phone was dead, and I did not know the time myself.

Home wasn’t too far off. I realized that I had held my book open at the spot I left off at. I put the book back in my bag and stretched out the fingers on my left hand. They were sore and stiff from maintaining the same position for so long. It felt good to breathe some fire into each digit. I spotted Arsenal Tech to my left. A lot of kids in the neighborhood chose to go there, though I never heard much good about it. I loved the scenic way it looked behind the black iron rods that fenced the campus in. I saw the trees fan the green grass with their shade. I felt a strong urge to clasp those black rods and pull myself over that fence. Each rod used to have a black spade shaped on the top of it, but rust saw the end to that. I figured I would not risk too much if I climbed the fence and scaled a tree. But I figured that trespassing on a campus I never properly walked on probably wasn’t the best idea and trudged on through the sunlit sidewalk.

Cities always put in pockets of nature that I loved to languish in, whether it was a park or a simple patch of trees next to a road. I picked up tree climbing in my own neighborhood flush with foliage. Scaling a fence then clasping a high branch with your hands and hoisting yourself up into a leafy embrace always felt victorious. I never found anything quite like scaling a massive tree in the middle of an immense city. Once I reached the top and saw the stretch of steel and concrete and splotches of waving green grass, I really felt as though I were in a jungle.

Once I passed Arsenal tech I approached my neighborhood. Woodruff Place was founded as a suburb in the 1800’s for upper class Hoosiers. Now the city enveloped it fully. Woodruff Place was not more than five miles from the heart of the city, and even less of a distance from Mass Ave. Woodruff Place consisted of three drives (West, Middle and East). Each drive had a road that ran a wide oval through it. In the middle of that oval were medians full of tall and old trees. Old and grand two story houses decked each of Woodruff place’s drives. These days Woodruff place was a middle class enclave in the poorer part of the city, just a block away from the predominantly black and predominantly Latin American parts of town. I had to pass west and middle drive before I reached east drive.

I looked back down Michigan. The five miles I walked felt long to me. I wondered how many people walked down those streets and saw some life in these old streets worth remembering. Maybe it just was an old road in the middle of a fairly young city in a region full of aging individuals. Maybe I would go back to DC and realize I made more of it than was ever there to begin with. All I knew was that the thinking made the heat feel less bitter.

~Austin R Ryan