Every body in light and shade fills the surrounding air with infinite images of itself – Leonardo da Vinci
I was born in Des Moines, Iowa, a small city in the center of a small state in the center of the U.S. I was born to a small, gentle woman from the South Carolina coast and a large former-Marine who spent my earliest years off building airports in Greenland and highways in Alaska. I was born in Des Moines—but never truly lived here. Des Moines was, to me, like the fairgrounds in the off-season. Quiet, still, rustic, empty. Dull.
I've spent most of my life away from Des Moines. I lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, on the New Hampshire coast, on the Virginia coast, and on the coast of Maine. I lived in Washington, D.C.; I lived in Manhattan. I returned to Des Moines occasionally to see my family—usually during the State Fair. I would buy my ticket and get happily lost in the noise and the bright sparkly lights and the anarchic surge of the crowds. And I would leave Iowa as quickly as Southern manners allowed.
I became a medic in the military, and my days and nights were spent making the decisions that often determined whether somebody lived or died. I became a counselor in the Psychiatric/Security unit of a prison for women, and my days and nights were spent in the company of criminals who were delusional, dangerous, psychotic, fascinating. I became a private detective specializing in criminal defense, and my days and nights were spent in taverns and alleyways among murderers and drug dealers. I was part of the carnival—not one of the marks who rode the Ferris wheel, but one of the carnies who stayed silently in the shadows and made things work—and always knew what was really going on.
But you can't do that forever. Nor would you want to. So for a short time I became a teacher—quiet, still, academic. My working life became more placid, but I continued to live in places that were bright and brilliant and vibrant as any carnival. I studied and taught in the District of Columbia; I taught and wrote in Manhattan. I returned less often to Des Moines, and rarely during Fair week.
I decided to become a writer, which is a decision to become poor. I moved first to rural Pennsylvania and lived in an old drafty farmhouse, then to a central Ohio suburb, and my life grew smaller and more quiet. A friend—the best of all possible friends—helped me realize the value of family. When I returned to Des Moines and visited the State Fair, I avoided the crowded carnival midway and wandered through the old buildings where farmers had, for a century, put their livestock on display. And when the fair was over, I returned to the fairgrounds. I returned because it was quiet and still and solid and unchanging.
Now I live again in Des Moines and go to the fairgrounds fairly often. I'm drawn to the way the light inserts itself into empty structures designed for crowds. I'm drawn to the solitude offered by the shadows that form in massive livestock barns. I'm drawn to the stillness. I realize that much of my life has been spent off to one side, often in shadow, doing things quietly in places nobody can see, shaping events, observing, paying attention. I sometimes miss that other life. I sometimes miss the absolute necessity of paying close attention. I sometimes miss the immediacy.
But I miss it the way an amputee misses a gangrenous leg. I miss it, but it was time to let it go. I still prefer the silence of the shadows, and I'm content with the quiet, still, rustic, empty fairgrounds. This is where I live today. Tomorrow—who can say?