Monday, June 24, 2013

They Have Stars Here, by Chris Raia

by Joan

I’m pleased to introduce Chris Raia, a young writer at the cusp of his career. Over the past two decades, I have watched Chris grow from an observant, quiet one-year-old to a rambunctious teen and then a big-hearted college-graduate. Recently I read one of Chris’ stories in progress and was blown away by his wit and charm. I think you’ll be seeing more from him.

I am Chris Raia, and I sometimes like the writing thing. I very much enjoy black pens, the Oxford Comma, and sitting in beach chairs on driveways. I also like short, quirky author bios because I think they're fun. I like writing very simple stories about strangely simple characters, because I like to think strangeness makes people real. Want to chat? I'd love to! Send me an email at chrisraia (at) gmail (dot)com.

They have stars here

A few months ago, as a graduation present, my father and I went on a trip.  Twenty-four hours after I walked across the stage and received my diploma, my dad and I checked into Southwest Airlines in Baltimore to board a plane to California.  From there, we'd drive to Yosemite National Park to sleep in a tent, attempt to create fires, and look at pretty nature.  It was to be a father/son bonding experience of the grandest proportion.

And it was.

I brought a notebook because that's what people who like to consider themselves writers do when they visit places that people consider inspiring.  It's a pretty cool notebook.  It's tiny and leather and has a fancy cloth bookmark, and if you saw me writing things in it, you'd assume I'm deep and artsy.

While I was there, I kept convincing myself I'd write something fantastic.  That I'd find a new combination of words to describe the natural beauty of Yosemite Valley.  But then I realized, a lot of people have visited Yosemite before me.

Here's what John Muir jotted down in his notebook years ago.

"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."

Holy shit, right?  That's pretty good.

I was going through my cool, leather notebook the other day.  Here's what I wrote one night:
"Butterfly leading the way. Waterfalls. Sam and Nikki. York, England. Larry and William. Tent is up. Half Dome. Squirrels aren't afraid of people. Neither are the lizards.  Karen and Carl. Carl's dead dog is buried at Happy Isles. We went to Inspiration Point. Iranian Texans warned us about bears. Steaks in the rain. The beer is cheaper than water here. New Asian neighbors. They're cooking noodles, which is awesome. Scotch. The universality of kids jumping in puddles and the universal happiness they get from it. Rock Climber thinks he's "one with earth," which is probably bullshit. I hope our tent doesn't leak."    

Clearly, I'm not John Muir.  I can't describe scenes poetically.  I don't know how to make beauty come to life.  So I just wrote down aspects of the trip I wanted to remember.  And I'm glad I took that route.

I guess it's good to know that lizards aren't afraid of people in that section of California.  The fact that beer was cheaper than water was pretty fantastic.  And Sam and Nikki from York, England are the most adorable couple I'll ever meet.  But nothing I wrote down was really important.

But then I turned the page to the next night's thoughts.  It's only one sentence, written in enormous letters that take up the entire page.  And I think I nailed it.

"They have stars here."

It may sound silly.  It's definitely clichéd.  But it's true.  There were stars, and I liked looking at them.  I'm glad I wrote it down, because now I remember why it mattered.

The campsite my father - who we'll call Joseph as we move forward - and I stayed at had a tent, a metal box to store our food as to prevent bears from murdering us for our 99 cent powdered donuts, and - my absolute favorite piece of outdoor furniture - a picnic table.  Every night, after getting back from a hike or a drive or a tour, we'd sit at that table and have a nightcap with a Solo cup of red wine we bought at a Safeway before checking into the campsite.  It was a two-dollar bottle of wine, and it was just as disgusting as it's price.

During those nightcaps, we'd talk about the day.  We'd talk about what we wanted to do when we left Yosemite and went on our way to San Francisco.  But that night - the night with the stars - we didn't talk about anything.  I laid down and just stared.  I like stars.

Joseph and I have always had a great relationship, which is nice.  But in the weeks before our big trip, you could say we were sort of on the rocks.  I had just graduated, I didn't have a job lined up, and I wasn't exactly searching.  I completely shut down whenever he tried to help me.  His questions - and my doubts about the future - annoyed me, and I annoyed him because I'm a pain in the ass.  It got to the point that whenever we had a conversation, I'd lash out, and we'd both sit silently until somebody left the room.  I feel terrible about that.  I feel worse because, even though it was my fault, I know he felt terrible as well.

But that night, it was a different form of silence.  We had just spent four nights together in one of the only places in America where people are truly alone, and we had done this without fighting, arguing, or physically maiming one another.  The job conversation didn't matter. The stars put everything in perspective.

After three glasses of shitty wine in silence, Joseph said something.

"I hope you're having a good trip with me, because I'm having a great time."

It was as genuine a sentence as I've ever heard. It was nice.

People say there's magic in Yosemite Valley, magic you can't feel unless you're there.  I don't know anything about magic.  I'm not John Muir.  I'm certainly not one with nature.  I wrote in a tiny notebook for a week, and even though I didn't write a single sentence that really matters, I'm glad I had it.  It helped me remember something important.

I don't know where I'll be tomorrow, or the next day, or ten years from now.  But that day, in that moment, I was sitting on a picnic table sharing a two-dollar bottle of wine with my father.  We were happy.  And there were stars there.

That seems worth remembering.


  1. I'm a lot like you, Chris. I carry around notebooks, too, in case something really deep comes to mind and it never really does. Instead, one of two things happens: I either don't write in the notebook because it's too nice/pretty/expensive for my thoughts or I clutter one up with lists like movies I want to see, things I need to buy or books someone told me I should read.
    But the other day, a thought came to me and, since a cheap notebook was handy, I wrote it down: "Me=Moments of brilliance tempered by perpetual fatigue." I'm not sure if that's a line from a character of a book I'm writing or an explanation as to why I get so little accomplished.
    All this to say: I'm glad you write, that you have a cool notebook and thought it worthwhile to write in it. I love what you shared here! Keep writing!

  2. This is a great essay. I think finding the profound in the simple is the best thing of all. I have been trying to decide if I'm taking a notebook overseas next week or not, and was having second thoughts because I figured I'd forget to write anything in it or not have it when I needed it. Maybe I will after all. I bet they have stars where I'm going, too, and I bet they're worth remembering. Thank you for this!

  3. It took me so long to respond to both of you!

    Thanks so much for your comments! My notebook that I brought to Yosemite is now full. Mostly of to-do lists from work and lists of words that rhyme with one another for children's stories I'm convinced I'll eventually write... but full nonetheless. I suppose that's an accomplishment.

    Thanks again for taking the time to read!


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