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The bell's tolls: A personal essay

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FEBRUARY 11, 2023

It’s too late for me to be up.

Writers’ impulse has gripped me the last week. Can only have been painted by a madman, screaming off the page. Finished a poem today, then sat for a minute while its totality washed over me and breathed in its stillness;
                                                                                                                                                               its rhythms,
                                                                                                                                                              tremors drifting about my mind. We said goodbye and I placed it on my bookshelf.

talking to S last week after a couple games of magic. we’re sat in his room just chatting about riffraff, D leaving, interests, hopes. he’d modeled a little wizard out of clay, its little hat, nose, cloak, wand, eyes, boots, painted and glazed. could have been bought from a store. I thought it was impressive. I asked him how he did it. told me it was just creative expression. An expression of what exactly? And what does it mean to be creative? What makes something a creative endeavor? Is everything a creative endeavor? If not, is there some logic that likens creative endeavors? Are all creative endeavors expressive?

(Here’s a non-exhaustive list:

game playing, planning, wandering, running, decorating, wizard-making, jotting in calenders, solving problems, climbing, traveling, reading, refashioning the environment, storytelling.)

For a while I thought I wanted to be a writer. Now, staying in the countryside with M & E, speaking exclusively in French, made acutely aware of the medium to share ideas. Often missing the tools to be understood, thoughts and feelings stay trapped in my head. The same feeling babies must have when they scream and nobody understands. It took longer to explain liar’s dice than it did to play. And I realize the value of my position as a writer. Scratching my existential itch demands connecting the thought in my head to words. Demands freedom of expression.

Do you hear that?
The bells sounding from within—

How did he do it,
I asked him point blank:
how’d you do it?

from a picture
     in his head
     to a being
          he held in his hands

S is a dude,
all that ‘is a dude’ demands:
     liking cereal
     pissing on trees
     making wizards/
                                    little clay wizards.

Does S create
like mom, love you mom
and dad/
                 Thanks for making me.

Does S create
like a birdsong in the canopy
or the bells’ existential tolls
     grabbing us by the neck/
                                                  screaming down our throat
this is who we are.

Here are some things I’m working on:

(Here’s a story from our lives:
F♭, raining
pass the cajun chips

what do you mean kahoon
it’s kay-juhn
with a soft j
like giraffe)

that’s the existential toll?

Stumble, laugh, sunder,
     then go right on again
     trying life on in front of the mirror
     because you can put it right back and
         retell it again.
             sometimes better,
             always different.

             Just art-
             not the simple,
but the actualizing:
the retellings and the retryings
until in time you’re sat content. 

Went on my first run since the marathon up in the hills with T, delicate steps on the descent after the sun had set. Talking about life. Jobs. Told me I should try to craft the shit that’s happened to me into a narrative, a story. It’d be good for interviews. I think it might just be good to try and rationalize it, ascribe to it some morals and a meaning.

I’m twenty now. “Now” seems too long a phrase: Some moments passed by quickly but are still receding into the distance. I don’t know if words can capture it. Like how dreams make shitty stories. Lorde sings this line, something like, “we’re all the things we do for fun.” That feels about right. Conjugating “to be” always misses the nuance of its subject. “I am” a runner / player of magic the gathering / writer / reader / climber.

Here’s a dream I had:

Vases, infinite vases. Knobcone pines, lichen, falcons. Serene amble. Sister: small vases, feet careful. Cabin, inside, bunks, that week-old cabin smell. Exhalation, inhalation, exhalation, &tc. Family. Infinite vases– narrow necked, large necked, tall vases, vases with rocks. Games of tag, games of pool, living rooms full of grandma and grandpa and more grandma and more grandpa. Rory & Tory & Mo. Start facing west: tomatoes / cucumbers / strawberries / pomegranates / blackberries / grapes. Lawns, pine needles, infinite vases full of carrots and lettuce and beets year round. Hill’s crest, stream’s gurgles. Their house, cozied by a fireplace. 

Tremors through the Earth, tremors about you. Plant & harvest shovel-full by shovel-full or handful by handful. Potato latkes, cottage cheese, infinite vases underfoot. Glass cracks, feet careful. Unravels. A stool, hi, a wooden box, a home, a fish of graphite and lead, a tarp, a few DVDs, sourdough starter, an idea. And then you’re running.

Running down slopes, past near-familiar faces, faces blurred together, running from something, for something, blood pumps. Irregular jagged bits, infinite vases underfoot like a conveyor belt. You’re running.

Then you’re not.

Returned from Europe and mouth ran like a river, nonstop, telling stories, retelling the same stories, not telling some stories. Somewhat for other people, mostly for me. Put the events in order, sort it, ascribe to it some morals and a meaning and put it up on my bookshelf.

I can pull it down one last time:

I’ve been out billowing like a tent
wandering through my days and
staked only by public transport tickets.
                    December 26th, SFO
                     → CDG (+1 day)

What I was looking for
I couldn’t say and what
I saw I won’t.

I can’t. See, here, I’ll try:
roads / rivers / walls:
some with murals, some I
had to go around / You
wouldn’t believe the greens.

Because what I saw requires
the why / who / where / &tc. And
roads / rivers / walls look one way today
and another tomorrow.
                    January 1st, Paris Gare du Nord
                    → London St. Pancras

Did you know:
History is kept in cases
laid out bare + properly positioned:
like shitty amateur porn you’d
have trouble finishing to.

Fingers grope for a culture
mindlessly, flattened behind glass
and the first thing history sees,
is smudgy glass

Open to the public
Between ten and five.
(Ten and eight-thirty on Fridays!)
January 5th, London St. Pancras
                     → Gare du Nord

And now I’ve seen all the roads
and rivers and walls and now
I have a history and now I’m
supposed to be someone.

Supposed to have stories I keep
behind smudgy glass.

I play magic, speak French, run marathons, &tc.
I’m twenty now, that’s gotta be something.
My parents are divorced. I have a cat
two siblings and a tattoo, don’t like fish tacos,
I believe in some things
and don’t believe in others.

                     January 12th, CDG
                     → SFO

I took my boots
and my winter coat
back home.
Like magic from a wizard’s wand.

But my magic can’t express
what I saw,
or why I went looking,
or who I am,
or where I’m going,

my magic can only

play games, plan, wander, run, decorate, make wizards, jot in calendars, solve problems, climb, travel, read, refashion the environment, tell stories.

May the wind be at your back,
RN ∎


Contact Riley Nichols at 


FEBRUARY 11, 2023