The Mind Palace

I move along the edges of the room, rough hewn floors, the opposite side of a roof. A dormer to either side, a surprisingly spacious attic. The floors barely creak with my passing, with tells me this is the place they walked, this is the path that they traced out as the paced after a long day, cleaning all forty-two toilets in this godforsaken hellhouse, trying to keep themselves worn even when their bones wanted rest, damn the seeping cold. Damn the seeping leak to the right of the left dormer, too. Drip drip drip drip.

I walk the road again, searching for something. There is only an ancient card catalogue, set against the wall opposite to me, and an old bed frame, mattress long gone, and a few boxes stacked haphazardly. This treasure trove, this bounty laid before me, was like a mammoth in the room. Except mammoths are extinct–so they like the elephant in the room.

Finally, I find it: a moth ball, wedged so far into the far corner that I can imagine that it’s been there since the house was first built, just after the lord of the estate had walked up his nervous maid up the stairs to her new home, told her to sleep here and work there and not be too loud. When I go to dig it out, it takes a bit of prying with my fingernails, and part of the circle had been folded into the two intersecting edges of a cube. I admire it for a moment, a freak of geometry, before tucking into in my pocket and resuming my pacing.

This mindless labor would continue until. Until what, I could not say. Only that it would continue until it was done and then I would know it was finished, and I could be free of this place. So on and so forth and back and forth and back and forth.

I cross again, this time to straighten the stack of boxes. It may have been my angle of glance, but they didn’t seem quite straight. Crooked stacks of boxes were unacceptable–simply unacceptable. I imagined the old lord of the estate saying that: “Simple unacceptable, Miss Daniels! Simply unacceptable!” The posh voice, the accent of a Brit only recently in the states, the voice dripping with honey and money. And then the follow up comes: the cane and the shouts and the sounds of wood hitting flesh, maybe even cracking bones. Unacceptable.

I was stuck there, stuck in my shoes, dazed for a brief moment, until I shook it off and went to finish with the boxes. It sometimes seemed like the house was giving my visions. I knew that wasn’t true, I wasn’t crazy, it just felt that way. Like the walls were so rich with history that it was impossible not to brush against it and be taken back to the past once in a while. I remind myself not to brush against the walls. They have seen too many things. And by that I mean, I swear I mean, that they are so old that I do not want to contaminate them with my filthy modern skin and modern fingerprints and modern cells.

When I am over on that side of the room, I decide to take a few glances at the card catalogue. The fronts of the cards carefully catalogued the previous owner’s extensive library, even though I had the haunting suspicion that he had read very few of them.  I was probably just being cynical. It is one of my worst traits, or so I’ve heard. The backs of the cards catalogued the librarian-maid’s extensive emotions. I gently pick up a yellowed card from the box marked “Zt-Zz”, one of her later entries, which only said “I am very tired. It is finished.” Much shorter than some of the notes left on the backs of the cards.

Christopher the Cabbage Boy had wanted to get rid of them, but I had asked him not to. When I told him about the maid’s diary he agreed. Then he agreed again when I told him that we could preserve the cards and use the catalogue for our own library. But I lied, and when he asked for my help in taking the cards out, I told him it was cruel and unusual punishment to remove to pieces of history so intrinsically intertwined with each other. It was like separating twins. That is when he started making that face that I didn’t understand.

He made the face more and more the more time I spent up here, cleaning it up, removing the things that didn’t belong. I let him keep four boxes there of our own things, because four is a good number, and there weren’t too many boxes to impede the space. Then we talked about how many boxes we could really fit up there if we didn’t leave room for the probably-existing ghosts, and decided that it was quite a lot. He made the face a few times, but not too many, until I asked him why I called him Cabbage Boy again.

He shook his head. “You’ve never called me Cabbage Boy before.”

And I said, “But I always have.”

His face never totally unfurled after that, even though I still don’t understand what could upset him so after a simple question on a Saturday evening.

The sound of footsteps on the stairs made my entire body tense up like there was a bear behind me, and I carefully closed the catalogue, trying to sweep away the lingering fears of an angry estate master. Maybe he was a bit of a bear, though. I didn’t have a photograph of him. I has always imagined a slight, perhaps even foxy, but rather charming man. But he could have been big and burly and overbearing, covered in hair up to his eyeballs.

Cabbage Boy stepped into the room. He said, “I just got off the phone with the doctor. She say she’ll see you on Tuesday. Tomorrow. At three.”

“Why?” I asked him.

“She said it was a…general checkup.”

“Okay.” I accept his answer.

He stands there for a second, awkwardly crossing and uncrossing his arms before he casts his eyes down and goes to leave. I call after him.

“Wait, you aren’t going to give me a kiss before you go?”

A wan smile crosses his lips as he crosses the room, delivers a swift peck to my cheek, and then leaves again, this time going down the stairs completely. I try to push back the foreboding feeling, that of being abandoned in the ninth circle of hell, surrounded by traitors and not being right with god. I know that’s a crazy feeling. After all, only crazy people believe that god is trying to punish them. And I’m not crazy.


Thoughts on Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”

I first heard of Neutral Milk Hotel in the John Green book Will Grayson, Will Grayson. A character mentioned it once, I think. I assumed that it was a made-up band, and moved on with my life–it was completely inconsequential to the plot of the book.

It wasn’t until I had stopped reading John Green’s books that I heard of Neutral Milk Hotel again, this time through Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist, alongside a number of other songs. It was a single song: “Holland, 1945”, from their cult-acclaimed sophomore album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I had no idea what it was, and remained mildly interested in discovering the meaning behind the lyric “That they’d rather see their faces filled with flies / All when I’d want to keep white roses in their eyes”.

I liked the song, though it lived on my “terrible music for terrible tastes” playlist, right alongside the Bee Gees and other artists that have mostly been reduced to jokes or wholly ignored within the notorious mainstream. His voice wasn’t very good, and it screamed folk music, which none of my friends listened to, so I quarantined it away and listened to it when I was writing and doing homework. In essence, I agreed with the initial Rolling Stone review: “For those not completely sold on its folk charm, Aeroplane is thin-blooded, woolgathering stuff”.

I finally listened to the entire album almost two years later. I didn’t like it. Screaming “Jesus Christ!” was not high on the list of things I would willingly pipe into my ears, so halfway through “The King of Cornflowers” I turned it off. Two weeks later, I tried again, this time making it through the entire album. Surprisingly, though, this time I enjoyed it. It took several more months to realize the same album I had enjoyed, a number of other people had. Thousands, in fact.

There was a way which is felt wrong, incorrect, unspecial. Other people do not like the same things as me, and if they do, I like it for different reasons. I found this on my own through an increasingly strange series of connections and stumble-upons. This was mine–not somebody else’s. This was the corner of my brain that likes to sprawl out into everything, poisoning thoughts with emotions, trying to prove something when there isn’t something to prove.

There was another way which felt strangely connected: there were many other people who had stumbled upon this album, and deal of them like me, born only after the release, and they enjoyed it. They thought it was good. Is it not like classic literature? Other should enjoy it, so shout it from the rooftops!

And here I am: admitting to enjoying it, not so much because I find it shameful, but because you could have asked me to analyse the lyrics and I would have come up with different answers than what the professionals have said. On some level, I suppose this is because we project our own lives on to music, much like poetry, in a way that is much harder to do with literature. The ideas are more fluid, and connotations implied rather than outlined; I have never heard of an outline for a poem that was not bordering on epic. Some of the theories include prostitution, incarnation, and what effectively amounts of religious heresy. And yet. For a person who mocked music that made her uncomfortable, I enjoy music that at times makes me uncomfortable.

I suppose that such is what draws me to the album: there is a distinct air of discomfort that one rarely hears in music. Most thrives on correctly hit notes and perfectly manipulated guitar solos and lyrics that are full of innuendo that was fully intentional. This album seems otherwise; it is not perfectly polished, it is not wholly sensical, and it leaves a great deal to the imagination. Many writers do not fully understand what they do. In part this is because we all experience their words differently, but it is also because good writing is a very specific and vague thing. The author of this album has written something that encompasses this.

A Personal History of the Word Melancholy

Melancholy–a pensive sadness with no known cause. A happy sadness, and a recognition of the terrible in the world, all wrapped up with the good. Evil meets goodness, greed meets friendship.

I remember the room–a small yellow room on the second story of a concrete shopping center. The building was an anomaly, and the part we were inside even more so. It is, quite frankly, incredible how much of your life can wind up revolving around a single shopping center.

My mother, engineer turned teacher turned annoyed syllabus-reader told me and a few others that we were reading a book called Because of Winn-Dixie. I took one look at the book and decided that I disliked it. It was full of greens and browns and the kind of washed-out neutrals that can only be properly observed in run-down Florida strip malls. I read it anyway, because I was supposed to be a good example and didn’t want to provoke her wrath, like fire raining down from on high.

The book itself was exactly that: a run down Florida shopping mall, a few miles from the beach, retirees and their peculiar scent, the residents of backwoods Florida that grew up in posh New England suburbia. The ones that couldn’t afford the expensive retirement living communities with names like allegro and vista village. Or perhaps the ones that came here before the corporations scooped up coastal swamps to pave them in concrete and building them into menacing condominiums. It was set in a time before Winn-Dixie moved out of Florida, and I can remember my mother reminding me to always check the expiration dates on the milk and the beige-brown walls that did nothing to complement the spotted bananas.

It was all Because of Winn-Dixie. I can remember very clearly: the lozenges that tasted of melancholy, the volume of War and Peace and left a lingering impression of melancholy, the lives looked back upon and tree strung up with beer bottles and the interior of a Winn-Dixie store and retirees’ mobile homes, all melancholy.

There is a sense of melancholy about the old: leaving it behind, accepting the inevitable demise, perhaps mourning something that will never be again. There is a similar sense about the new, and the shininess of things and how it will never be that shiny again, how it will always just be a merely physical item, and all that you are doing is projecting your own desires upon it.

Melancholy, that day, was a new word. It was not a dictionary definition, but something alive and strangely fluid, like those skyscrapers that are means to bend with the wind, because it is the flexible reed that survives the hurricane, not the sturdy oak tree.

It is, now, the same thing I experience as I walk the dog, imagine the number of rituals I could complete to try and ward of this sense of change, to say some kind of goodbye. I have lived here for my entire life. I have known no other house, much less with the same intimacy of the things that occurred within the walls. If only they could talk.

So it is now, as I walk across the neighborhood, carefully placing each foot on each concrete block of sidewalk, trying to touch every piece of the place that had been the stage for childhood adventures, for curiosity, and for growing pains, that I think of melancholy. It is a happy sadness, and sadness that runs deep through my veins, bones, soul. Here is concrete that has held blood from skinned knees, tears from tempers unleashed. Here are the houses whose stories we made up: the people with the dalmatian-print siding, the formerly-highlighter-orange house, the place that used to be a drug house.

I know that the family home will likely sell to a rich man who sees the nearby university as the perfect business opportunity. He will strip out our family secrets lodged in the paint for calming neutrals, refurbish the elderly idiosyncrasies of a well-lived-in home, and rent it out to four different college students who will bicker over the bathroom and drunkenly spill beer on the laminate and slam the garage door too hard. It is not so hard to leave. It is hard to imagine what will happen after we leave.

This is melancholy: trading a personal history for a fresh start.