I got an email from an old friend of mine who worked in my creative writing office a few years ago. She was asking for a letter of recommendation to go teach overseas. The subject heading was Letter of Recommendation/Planning My Escape. I can’t tell you how much that made my day. When I was wrapping up my earthly duties as an assistant director, we would talk about how Wilkes-Barre had offered both of us all that it had to offer. It isn’t a knock on the town or the people or the life I shared and loved there by any stretch of the imagination, but for my friend and I, we knew that whatever we were looking for or whatever we would hope to be couldn’t happen if this was our final destination on the TripTik. Of course, it took the bottom falling out of my life to provide me with the gentle nudge out the door, but that’s another story (see BWY: Episode 1-all of them).
I have been fortunate enough to have written several letters of recommendation in my day. It’s flattering that somebody thinks that much of you and your (perceived) position that they want you to account for their abilities and skillsets. Usually, most of these folks have an embarrassment of talents which I do my best to shoehorn into a letter that sounds nearly professional. I remember writing a handful of letters when I was in my former life, and thinking about how far these people are traveling–that they were taking that long walk towards a life beyond the doors of graduate school into a larger world. I would be a little jealous, but I couldn’t complain. I was working in the academic world making decent coin and had a grown-up life, or as big boy fancy pants as it gets for me. Bank account, disposable income, domestic life. It was just in a town I had grown out of–there were worse fates than being comfortable. When a cage flexes as you breathe, it’s hard to see the bars, I guess.
Even after a season of couches, I still felt I hadn’t truly left the confines of the walled city. An organic institutional mindset–what you know as life of what it could and can be happens here inside invisible walls. Potential is the flickering flame dwindling down a wooden matchstick–instead of igniting a larger fire, you let it burn your fingers and eventually extinguish. That smoke is a ghost whose smell sticks to your clothes for a good long time. Sense memory of pain and promise–persistent and gone all at once. You know this. I knew this. That truth made not leaving even worse. So you carry the guilt in a bottle, but in order to fill the bottle with guilt, you need to empty it first. I did. Several, enough to send a library of bottled messages into a sea of blue green gone which kept slowly advancing on the beachhead of my productive days. Luckily I didn’t drown.
I was thinking about how I would start the letter for my friend but couldn’t help but think about that phrase “planning my escape.” Thought about friends who had already left town for points beyond the walled city and where it has taken them. Thought about those who have returned–some flames just light the way home.
I thought about the matchbox houses of Northeastern PA and my friends who have found or not found their place; those who have chosen to measure their lives by the weight of potential. I miss them. Often late at night when I’m half asleep at my desk, I want to send them a letter full of matches. I know that the ledger by which we balance our days add and subtract with a private math in language only spoken to a mirror. I can’t judge anyone else’s choices to act or not. To leave town or to stay. To aspire or to smolder. What I’ve realized is that the “walled city” or “invisible cage” isn’t a place bound by geography, it is the boundaries we place upon ourselves. Where we go doesn’t matter, it is how we choose to leave that space within us that is the true escape. A permission to be the pyre rather than be the sacrifice upon it
“Easy for me to say” seems to be my caveat of choice lately. It is easy for me. I’m out, and it has worked out.
My Assistant Editor is a freshly struck match. He’s looking for grad schools, a writing life, and a ticket out of Springfield. That invisible cage expands and contracts around him, when you’ve taken the keys and walked out of one, you know what to look for. He’s ready and he almost knows it.
Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in various journals including The North American Review, PANK Magazine, and Drunken Boat. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. He lives in Springfield, IL.