Mea Culpa

Back when I started this blog, last August, I came to it with a bevy of ideas and inspiration, with some grand plans, and with a commitment to update weekly, regularly, to better build an audience and an expectation of regular content. For awhile, I maintained that plan, and I worked toward a long series of posts on Closed Systems Economics—some of it already in mind and some of it still forming in the ether. I planned, as well, to delve into serialized fiction on this blog and other subjects as they caught my fancy.

As readers can see, these plans have withered and morphed into alternate plans. The election proved distracting and a busy holiday season that included a major life milestone initially knocked the regular schedule of the blog off track. An increase to full time in my day job starting at the beginning of the year kept me struggling to update the blog. It’s not that I don’t still have ideas for posts that I would like to communicate, but that I’m feeling less and less that this is the most important use of my time.

I’ll be honest: There’s a good chunk of me that simply wants time to read (I’ve returned full bore to it in recent months) and to spend time relaxing with and talking with and enjoying the amazing woman in my life. In addition to my currently full time job, I have another issue of Into the Ruins that I want to get out into the world (and which I’m behind on putting together) and my own personal fiction writing I want to pursue. I have books calling to me and a partner, as well—not to mention friends, family, and all the people in my life I sometimes struggle to find time for. For many years now, I have made it a habit to take on more than I can do, and I’ve done it as someone who—aside from his many ambitions—intensely loves and in many ways needs a good bit of down time. Frankly, I also love to walk, preferably at least an hour each day, and it’s hard to do that and write a blog post at the same time.

Finally, in thinking on this today while out for just such a walk, the thought finally knocked me upside the head that I want more tangible things in my life right now. I spend too much time on the computer creating digital ether as it is, given my day job. Even though it will still involve a computer, I would rather craft my writing a bit more slowly, a bit more privately, and then release it into the world (hopefully) more fully formed and in hard copy. Thanks to my works publishing Into the Ruins, I know now how to do that, if only I get the actual writing done. I would rather focus on that goal than trying to meet a weekly deadline.

Therefore, I am stepping away from Litterfall. I know, it didn’t last that long, and I made the unfortunate mistake of publicizing it in the third issue of Into the Ruins right before I stopped updating it. (Whoops!) And hey, I’m not saying I’ll never update here again; I imagine there will be some moments when inspiration will strike and I’ll simply want to put something out into the world. But that’s more like to be once every could months than once a week.

For those of you who have followed my writing from back in the Of the Hands days—well, this is likely to come as no surprise. Apologies; I suppose I’m nothing if not predictable. For everyone else, I’m sorry for not better following through. I have a nasty habit of taking on more than I can realistically accomplish and fooling myself about that fact. It’s something I continue to work on. And for those of you who have followed my story, “An Expected Chill,” I hope it isn’t too much a jerk of a move to say that I now plan to finish that story not here on the blog, but in the pages of the fourth or fifth issue of Into the Ruins. I’ll be sure to make an announcement here when its available.

Thanks for the readership, everyone, and for all the comments. If you have something to say, please do so in the comments below, as well. I promise to answer, unlike some of the last few posts when I’ve let that habit slide. And I’ll almost certainly be back at some point. It’s just that those returns will probably be few and far between. With luck, whenever I do come back, it’ll be worth a visit from you. If you want to see it when it happens, you can always sign up to follow the blog by email to your right.

Onward into 2017: a year promising interesting times, indeed.

A Moment of Nothing

Needing a walk, he shrugged a heavy flannel button down over his undershirt, then took his winter coat off the rack and added it over the top. He slipped a pen in his pocket—always ready—grabbed his keys and opened the front door to the dark night outside, wet and cold and just past the throes of breaking apart from the freezing rain the day before.

The previous day had started with snow, transitioned into freezing rain in the afternoon, and then held there, the ice building a steady sheen, slickening the world about. It held overnight, despite the warming temperatures, and not until 24 hours after it began did it finally start to break and dissipate and then relent against the pressure of steadily warming rain. Now it was just rain, steady and calming, and only the occasional kaleidoscope of broken ice on the sidewalks, slush lines on the roads.

The neighborhood huddled quiet around him, the sidewalks empty and street lights few and far between. The house’s windows held light, but less than it seemed they should. The holidays kept echoing: Christmas lights still strung and lit here and there, some multi-colored and some white, some tiny and some bulbous, some displays neat and others a garish mess. One blow up Santa, its fan whirring, fought against the competing white noise of steady rain.

He didn’t know where to go and didn’t care, so he walked straight for awhile and then turned and straight and turned and wound his way through the gridded neighborhood. It wasn’t quite the right jacket for the rain, drops falling and soaking in and the coat so slowly growing heavier as he walked, taking in the winter’s runoff. It fell all around—tiny and incessant hollow thumps on the hood of his coat. Its steadiness calmed him, though, and set his mind adrift in the best of ways. His steps echoed the raindrops: one for a hundred, or for thousands, dependent on the area surveyed.

He kept trying to understand the year stretched in front of him, shaded in an outline that shifted every time he tried to comprehend it. The year behind he understood better, even if he knew it would continue to echo across his life for many more years to come. But he couldn’t yet grasp the one in front of him.

An occasional car passed him slow, it’s hissing tires turned to waterwheels in the wet streets. The sidewalk kept greeting him with puddles and ponds: ice and rain, joining forces and becoming one. He stepped around them and in them and sometimes it wasn’t puddles but cracked messes of water and ice, pockets of cold that refused to give way to the warming. He kept leaving the sidewalk for the street, walking its cleaner edge and slowly drifting toward the middle until he felt unknown eyes on him, telling him to get back in place.

Passing under a cluster of thick pine trees, the steady sound of the rain muted back to a whisper. The rain entered the trees and filtered through its branches, coalescing into fatter, clumsier drops that tumbled out of the pine’s needles, landing messy on his shoulders, the hood of his coat, the concrete surrounding him. He stopped, and even as he waited the rain muted more and more, faded, and became almost nothing until he realized it was slowing beyond the trees, too—the clouds were tightening, closing in on themselves, taking a deep breath before deciding what to do next.

Not completely, though. It still rained, he found, as he emerged from beneath the trees, the dark street unwinding before him. It rained light, but it rained, the drops much more few and far between now, small and uncertain. The houses on either side were dark. He didn’t understand what had happened to them, so early in the evening. Where was everyone? What were they planning?

A vacant lot rose on his left, at the top of a sharp slope of muddied grass that flattened out at close to even with his head, a broken fence strung around the lot’s edges. A backhoe waited just beyond. The ground was torn apart, the earth gaping and waiting to be covered. Halfway along the lot’s ragged edge, a cat’s face emerged out of the darkness on the other side of the chain link.

He startled. The face was feet from his, low to the ground, too large. It was sharp, pointed, a cat and not a cat and–

a bobcat.

He stumbled, but stopped. Pushed the hood from his head. The bobcat shifted and the full length of its body came parallel to the fence, so dim in the night’s dark. But a bobcat. He had seen one once before, at a good distance, slipping out of view ahead on a trail. Nothing this close, though.

This one stared at him, calm, and even as he both backed up and moved forward, it paced him along the fence with soft and silent steps, padded feet sure of each placement. They watched each other. It sunk its head low, then high, and brushed its nose soft against the fence. He remembered to breathe. Then he continued to walk, watching the fence ahead to see if it was solid, if it held gaps. He could see none. But he knew it wasn’t solid; it was barely upright and no doubt this creature could leap over it, push through it, get to him if it truly wanted to. Still, he felt little danger, just fascination and a certain nervousness at the surprise of the situation and the small background pressure of his mind turning over what this might mean, what its significance was.

At the edge of the lot, the corner of the next street, the two of them stopped and eyed each other, their breathing now synced. A rumble and hiss rose behind him and he turned in time to see a car passing slowly. A young girl stared at him out the back driver’s side window, illuminating by the passing street light, her eyes widening at the sight of the bobcat waiting at the fence. She put two fingers against the window’s cold glass. In front of her, her father gripped the steering wheel tight, eyes straight ahead even as he turned the car at the corner, head rigid, refusing to look anywhere else, not even where he was going. “Daddy,” the girl mouthed, but he made no indication he heard her and then the car was gone, slanting around the corner and down the street, the father’s head still turned to the right and searching in vain for his pre-turn view.

He stared after the car for a moment and, out of the corner of his eye, saw the bobcat slip backward into the darkness, the vacant lot swallowing the animal’s presence.

He continued on. After another block, the rain ceased falling and the night’s quiet grew. He passed signs for various political candidates from the just-passed election, the corrugated plastic flat and sullen in its January impotence. Take them down, he thought. Was it inertia or laziness that kept them up? Denial? Rage? A wistful hope?

Now he looped back, coming within a few blocks of his apartment. The year past continued to echo and the year coming kept flexing around the edge of his vision, not quite ready to come into focus. Turning a corner, he started down a hill, the sidewalk lined with spindled deciduous trees, leafless in the winter gloom. The one above him held a crow, he noticed—just barely spied in the diffused light of a distant street lamp. He stutter-stepped. He could remember no other time he had seen a crow at night, still or otherwise, and even as he clumsily paused to consider this, the corvid swept down out of the tree and toward the top of his head, dropping fast, and it ruffled his hair as it rose just as fast, swooping into a settled perch the next tree down.

Okay, he thought.

He walked, watching the crow as he approached. The bird stared back at him, just barely an outline against the night sky. As he passed under the next tree’s branches, he forced himself not to look up at the crow, not to look back at him, and soon he felt another rustle as it flew silently past again, a wing brushing the crown of his head.

The second time felt more familiar and so he continued walking, steps heavy on the sidewalk’s slope, the crow’s presence heavy above him. Again he passed the tree, again the bird dove and brushed him, again it settled in the next tree beyond. Twice more it happened before he came to the corner and turned right and then, ten yards on, stopped and turned back to look for his companion.

The bird waited on a sturdy branch halfway up the tree on the corner. A moment after looking at it, the crow dipped its head twice and stretched out one wing and then, after a long beat, the other.

He said nothing. Turning back, he continued on toward his waiting apartment. Above, the clouds made their decision and opened back up, this time wider, and they drenched the world below. The rain pounded against his coat, spattered his jeans, echoed upon the concrete all around him. For a moment, the world was only a cacophony and he knew nothing then except the past half hour—the bobcat and the girl and the crow, the Christmas lights and yard signs, the eerie silence of the street and breaking, melting ice. He could hardly even see the past year then, and the one stretching before him became nothing but an inevitability he couldn’t know, a future knowledge he had no hope of predicting. The rain drowned it all out, and that moment of nothing became the only thing he understood.

Editor’s Addendum: I hope you all will forgive the above creative digression. I intended to write an essay tonight, talking a bit about my New Years resolutions and intentions, and some of my thoughts about the year to come. But, to be honest, I don’t have it all clear in my head yet. And so, as I struggled to start this blog post, I decided instead to take a short walk to see if it could clear my mind. The above is what came out of that. These things did not actually happen to me, of course—though some of the less strange elements and details are indeed taken in part from my  walk—but it feels as though it captures some of my current state of mind. Forgive me the lack of thorough editing, the inevitable indulgences, and the strong possibility the above is all just too damn precious. Despite its flaws, I hope you enjoyed it.

On another note, I’d like to bring everyone’s attention to a few things happening over at Into the Ruins. First of all, I’m running a special on the first three issues of the magazine for anyone who hasn’t yet dived in, knows someone who might be interested, may want to gift an issue or three, or just wants to stock up for whatever crazy reason. All shipping is currently free through the end of January and you can also purchase both the first and second issue for just $23 or the first three for $33. Go here to take advantage of the offers.

Secondly, I just put up a new post on the Into the Ruins blog putting out a new call for letters to the editor for the fourth issue of the magazine. As before, this post comes with a prompt. I want to know what your new year’s resolutions (or just general intentions) are to mitigate the impact of decline and consequence in 2017. There’s more detail in the post itself, so go check it out and add your voice. I’d love to get a good conversation going over there and, as a result, a good conversation going in the letters section of the fourth issue of Into the Ruins.

Happy New Year, everyone. I hope it’s started out well for you.

Stay Tuned

Apologies, everyone. Due to a busy life, I’m taking a small break from the blog. I will try to provide a short update in the next week or so, then will be back with new posts in the new year. Happy holidays!

Disquieting Vistas

into-the-ruins-fall-2016-coverEditor’s Note: As I continue to work to balance my personal life, my day job, Into the Ruins, Figuration Press, this blog, and my other writing desires, I am finding that keeping this blog going with a significant new post every week may be a bit more than I can handle. Moving forward, it’s likely that I’ll transition to updates more along the line of every other week. In the meantime, though, I wanted to provide something this week and so am including a lengthy excerpt from my “Editor’s Introduction” in the newest issue of Into the Ruins. Want the full read? That’s easy—you can purchase the individual issue directly from Figuration Press, from Amazon, by asking your local independent bookseller to order it, or by subscribing to the journal. Frankly, I think it’s a pretty fantastic issue, featuring five new deindustrial science fiction stories, a good number of letters to the editor, the full essay excerpted below, a new “Deindustrial Futures Past” column from John Michael Greer, and Justin Patrick Moore’s lengthy survey of James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand series. It also has a fantastic cover featuring art work from Jack Savage, as seen at your left.

And if you like that? Well, you’re probably going to enjoy the first and second issues, as well. Frankly, there aren’t too many outlets right now for speculative fiction set in the sort of futures we’re going to get, rather than the shiny, outer-space spectacles so often portrayed as our destiny. I think the more realistic futures as depicted in the stores in Into the Ruins are much more fascinating, much more honest, and well worth your time and consideration. If you aren’t already a subscriber or haven’t checked out one of the issues yet, give it a shot. And read on for a taste of the sort of editorial content that comes with each new issue.

I aim to return next week with the continuation of “An Expected Chill,” and then we’ll go from there.

— Joel Caris, 11/28/2016

In The Geography of Childhood‘s opening essay, “A Child’s Sense of Wildness,” Gary Paul Nabhan makes the observation that children tend to focus on small, micro elements of the natural world. Exploring the outdoors with his own children, he notices as they pay their attention to “the darting of water striders [and] the shapes of creek-washed stones,” and “scramble up slopes to inspect petroglyphs and down arroyos to enter keyhole canyons.” Meanwhile, he observes how adults pay their attention to the macro elements of the natural world, “scanning the land for picturesque panoramas and scenic overlooks,” the sort of scenery we take long hikes to come upon. Reading it some years back, I found it a fascinating observation that rang true, sticking with me as one of those remembered insights that has many times helped me make sense of the world.

As it happens, that insight has helped me once again. One of my challenges in expecting a harsh future lies in my tendency to think of these possible futures in broad, macro terms—as scenery that’s stunning in all the wrong ways. I see the possibilities of economic trouble, geopolitical flare ups, destructive wars, political and social upheaval, domestic insurgencies, and so much more. I imagine how it might feel to be caught in the cracks of a clash between world powers, to not be able to provide for myself or the people I love, to be at the mercy of cascading political chaos or vindictive social reprisals. Since I can’t truly know the future in advance, my imaginings of its trouble sometimes take the form of a certain suffocating foreboding—a general, dark malaise.

It’s a change of pace from other times of my life, particularly when I was young. At that point, I believed in the beneficence of progress and the ability of the onward march of time to provide me a better life. It’s not that that’s what always happened, it’s just that I believed more often than not that it would, even if the current moment suggested the opposite. I considered such dispiriting moments a setback, and little more.

I still sometimes feel that way. It’s an odd discordance that I often expect our collective future to be harsh but still hold out hopes that my own future will be an improvement: stronger and better interpersonal relationships, more satisfying work, modest but comfortable financial success, a sense of contributing to the world in a positive way—and perhaps even having a super awesome weekend. It’s not that I think this is crazy or deluded; such a divergence of fortunes is entirely possible and happens regularly. But I don’t know that there’s any particular reason I should expect to escape the negative impacts of the hard times ahead. A crumbling economy, dark political undercurrents, social upheaval, a major war, and an upending of the current socio-economic order all threaten to impact me. I’m not the most vulnerable person in this country, but I’m far from the least. I would place myself somewhere solid in the middle, and such troubles may have a very large impact on my life indeed.

Therefore, the macro picture is a dangerous one for me—or so I believe. The stunning vistas are disquieting, the picturesque panoramas foreboding. They threaten my comfort and stability. And so sometimes, when I feel as though these panoramas are coming into a disturbing focus, a darkness falls over me. This happened to me recently, as the American election devolved into a toxic stew of bitter anger and betrayal—furious conflicts in interest, values, and worldviews—and I found myself caught in a wary sympathy for many voters on both sides, as well as glimpsing the beginning of a too-close upheaval that I could all-too-easily imagine cleaving my life into too many pieces. From there, I began to expand my view, moving from one dark element of the overlook in front of me to several others, taking a hard look at the chaotic outline of geopolitical reality, the simmering anger against the establishment, the crushing opioid epidemic ripping through this country, particularly within our heartland, and the utter discord and disconnect between the significant chunk of this country that is well off enough to feel an investment in the continuation of some version of the status quo and those who have been so utterly crushed by the economic and political dysfunction in America that, their backs against the wall, they would consider most anyone or any course of action that might bring acknowledgment of their plight and change in the organizing principles of this country.

It took me a few weeks to extract myself from that miasma. I will never claim not to have my bad habits, and I am skilled—at times, anyway—at backing myself into a single-view corner and drilling down into one particular, nagging sensation. I had to make a few messes, so to speak, and make myself crazy for awhile before I finally began backing away from the self-sabotage and recognizing my need to seed some different perspectives and create other foci. Granted, it’s not that I felt my concerns were unfounded or unrealistic, but that it did me little good to maintain such a laser focus on a troubled outcome I had little control over. I could not change that vista in front of me, after all—or if I could, it would be only the smallest chiseling of a tiny point upon one of its peaks, so small that it could never be seen from any sort of encompassing vantage point.

What was missing? Reflecting on it, I believe it was the micro. So caught in my macro views, I ignored the multitude of micro views also available to me. That doesn’t mean that all those views are enjoyable. Some are dark and foreboding themselves, of course, but the detail provides variety. It means that there are joyful views mixed in with those dark ones, even when they exist within the darker vista. It means, as well, that the dark views that remain can still take on a certain palatability, rooted in the small intimacies of human interaction, far too often destructive but just as or more often kind and heartening. We are all too quick to judge and create sweeping categorizations—all of us, across all ideologies—and yet I’ve watched people I admire as well as those I very much don’t act with a kindness and neighborliness toward those in their lives, even when they are humans of strikingly different color (literal and otherwise).

In addition to the complicated tendency of human kindness and human division, there is the encompassing beauty and alleviating grace of the natural world. I have written before of its savings—of shattered ice on river rock, the singing of frogs, the sudden nighttime yips and howls of coyotes—and even at a time of such national upheaval, it provides its daily blessings and respites. Of late, that has taken the form of crows hopping around our backyard, poking at the grass and ground beneath with their beaks, no doubt searching out treats and sustenance, their demeanor steady, alert, and by all appearances happy. It takes, as well, the form of autumn-crazed squirrels, darting back and forth and at times jumping wildly, through no obvious prevarication, digging at various intervals, ransacking bushes, chasing each other in wild abandon, and searching manic for their winter keep. I’ve watched all of this with a steady amusement and low-key delight, thankful each day for these seasonal set pieces . . .

Read the rest of this essay in the third issue of Into the Ruins, now available for individual purchase through the Figuration Press store, from Amazon, or as part of a subscription to the journal.

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