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What Is Life Most Like?

a) a bowl
b) Brad Paisley
c) Splenda
d) spoken-word tour by semi-celebrity overcoming suspiciously unspecified addiction
e) a terrible row among coelacanths
f) denim
g) beard of a hobo
h) the nicotine patch
i) an ambiguity between slur and jest
j) Moses Malone
k) blooming cloud of ink in a diamond-clear sea
l) the unwashed hand of God
m) spätzle
n) injustice
o) a counter-clockwise movement of the neck and upper torso
p) Spokane
q1) overflowing fountain of tears
q2) overflowing fountain of Mountain Dew
r) the Ford administration
s) girl named Beth, neither fat nor thin, her eyes like money and lips like honey
t) spätzle
u) water-stained 6,000 page book of Fun Facts
v) your mama
w) a pearl of middling price
x) death on an installment plan
y) sasquatch, not unwonted
z) Oklahoma!

Print out, circle your answer in pencil, and mail to an address of your choosing.

Walpurgisnacht

I was sure that I had written a Walpurgisnacht post here before, as I used to write them for the Subverbo email list, or at least send out an old one, every year that I thought to do it, which was several. But a Search found nothing, and I have no choice but to believe Search, as we all must now: pillar of civilization. Though it is more like Find, searching being exactly what has been eliminated. Yesterday I wanted a funnel to put oil in my car. I knew I had had one in a plastic bag, probably CVS, hanging on the coat-rack by my front door, but I had moved it for the sake of respectability and I didn’t remember where to. So I went around looking for it. Now that, that is a search. The kind of thing that made this country great and that the youths today have no idea how to do. I found it in my bedroom, just inside the door. But not right away, I searched first. It wasn’t over in a millisecond, it was a whole way of being unto itself, unpleasant and character-building, lasting at least five minutes. The funnel was hiding from me and I had to hunt it down like a wild beast, so I could assert my dominance over it and bend it to my will. It wasn’t just going to be handed to me by some magical invisible engine. And if I had not found the funnel, I was prepared to use my own two hands to make a funnel out of aluminum foil. I do believe I could have even done it with just one hand. One step beyond searching is creating. If Man is truly made in the image of God, then God probably spent some time searching around for a world to Lord over, before finally shrugging His shoulders and just making one Himself. But isn’t creating is just searching taken to another level, looking beyond the actual to the possible? Are not our creations more glorious as searchings than as accomplishments? Might not the same sentiment be applied to Creation? Finality is death. Completion, disappointment. A living God, like a living man, is an endless seeker.

Such an ontology, even without the theology, might help us appreciate Walpurgisnacht more wisely. Because however much you talk it up — and I have tried — you never seem to make it to the party. And you might not really want to. “Witches’ Night” — probably more like a trade convention than an actual good time. Where witches go to network. The demons, they are just middle-managers from hell. Even if there is an orgy, it’s going to be a German orgy. No, God save us from that scene.

But to the ever-searching imagination, what a delight it is. Cozy in your bed, with a late-April chill seeping through an open window, how nice to think of witches on a mountaintop, dancing in the moonlight, frightening and seductive and unbound by the already-known. And maybe tomorrow one will curse your enemy, curdle his milk, ruin his crops, and afflict him with a nasty catarrh.

Obama Aeternitas

I wanted to put a post here, at this moment in time, as a stay against time, a last chance to claim a plot of land in the Obama Era. Here the calendar will never flip, the date will always be January 19th, 2017. Let this be a temporal refuge, a homestead on the far edge of the civilized world, the warm place in mind that sustains us through our icy travails. A spike driven into the living stone on the edge of the abyss, anchoring from above.

Maybe I can go past today, maybe. But I like to know that I don’t have to. WordPress calls it editing; I call it time travel.

The Explorer & the Fashionista

PETER FREUCHEN KONE PELS PELSFRAKKE FAMILIE MAGDALENE VANG LAURIDSEN

Polar explorer Dagmar Freuchen (often misidentified as margarine heiress Magdalene Vang Lauridsen) and her husband Peter, a Vogue fashion illustrator.

 

Soul-Mate Soon Forgotten

I don’t think I have any substance to follow up the title of this post, unless I think of something before I end it. Neither soul-mates nor forgetting hold any interest for me at the moment, but it seemed like a good phrase, a suitable title for something. “Soon” is interesting. The quality of soonfulness, the sonority of “soon”, the modest beauty of it. It is a good word to meditate on. Don’t think about time, time won’t get you anywhere, but soon can be a revelation. You can feel the flow of things in soon. All promise and all sadness. Soon. Soon enough.

Now, as I write and pause from writing, I am getting some good things from soon. They haven’t all arrived yet, there is a haze in the middle distance, but I feel sure that before long soon will make me its adept, reveal itself, turn in my mind like a planet or most longed-for someone, and I will know. And then I may have things to tell you, not like now. Just wait.

‘Soul-mate soon forgotten’ also makes me think of a poem by Louis MacNeice, itself about love and time and the holding of the one in the other or the letting go, but in a very different way:

Meeting Point

Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with the one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs)
Time was away and somewhere else.

And they were neither up nor down;
The stream’s music did not stop
Flowing through heather, limpid brown,
Although they sat in a coffee shop
And they were neither up nor down.

The bell was silent in the air
Holding its inverted poise –
Between the clang and clang a flower,
A brazen calyx of no noise:
The bell was silent in the air.

The camels crossed the miles of sand
That stretched around the cups and plates;
The desert was their own, they planned
To portion out the stars and dates:
The camels crossed the miles of sand.

Time was away and somewhere else.
The waiter did not come, the clock
Forgot them and the radio waltz
Came out like water from a rock:
Time was away and somewhere else.

Her fingers flicked away the ash
That bloomed again in tropic trees:
Not caring if the markets crash
When they had forests such as these,
Her fingers flicked away the ash.

God or whatever means the Good
Be praised that time can stop like this,
That what the heart has understood
Can verify in the body’s peace
God or whatever means the Good.

Time was away and she was here
And life no longer what it was,
The bell was silent in the air
And all the room one glow because
Time was away and she was here.

The Stir of the Words

“Not an extreme instance of Blackmurian prose, this passage nonetheless shows what I mean by a style not merely instrumental. Many of its epiphanies are gained only in writing and from among the accruing possibilities of the words, not messages to be delivered but possibilities waiting to be discovered just under the surface or aslant from it.”

“Blackmur is not dealing with ideas and trying to find words and sentences to deliver them; he stays alert to the possibilities disclosed in the stir of the words. The true decision arises between the words. Normally, the first law of language is thought to be necessity, and possibility is entertained only as a grace note. But Blackmur makes space in which the possibilities are tempted to occur.”

— Denis Donoghue, Ferocious Alphabets

I don’t spend much time writing, but I spend a great deal of time, every day, on expository interior monologues. I am good at it. Communicating to no one I communicate well, and I think I come up with some worthwhile content. I would be very pleased if I could simply enunciate those monologues in either speech or writing. But the frustrating truth is that the actual acts of speaking and writing, in their different ways, offer a degree of impedance, of friction, that wrecks the fluency of my purely mental production. In the case of speech this seems like pure loss, an actuality always lesser than the mind’s potential. But with writing the situation is different. On the one hand, even if I can’t get the fluency of thought transmitted directly through my keystrokes, I should be able, with a little extra work, to re-create that fluency in my prose, or something like it, something even better. On the other hand, in writing I find that the friction offers positive possibilities along with the stickiness and stutter, room for play and imagination, the chance to discover what language has to offer beyond a subservience to my intention. A fruitful confusion. If I were a disciplined writer, a purposeful writer, maybe even a paid writer, I might pursue the first option. But I am not.

So I was thrilled to read Donoghue’s discussion of the prose of the critic R. P. Blackmur, from which I pulled the two quotes above. That is the kind of writing that tempts me, that offers pleasure, unleashes energies within me, unlocks unsuspected passions. It’s the fun of it. Like with a lot of fun things, it can get weird, uncertain, risking embarrassment. But at least you get the experience. And sometimes it produces as a residue something worthwhile that could not have been achieved any other way.

I do often have a desire to go at things straight, to write instrumentally in service of an already conceived idea, not to be waylaid by the allure of words and their rhythms or stopped by a stray thought. But what a tedious chore that can be! I find the writing of simple business emails painful work with often inept results. Pro writers often affect a pose of stern discipline. The talk of “killing your darlings” and how “good writing is re-writing”. And maybe I would be willing to kill some darlings and sweat revisions if I were to get some tangible rewards from it. Money, love, glory, or a good hot meal. But not for nothing. The unremunerated must self-indulge.

But self-indulgence can have a rigor of its own.

Note: I don’t mean to imply anything at all about Blackmur here. I think I read some of his essays years ago. Donoghue makes me think I should check him out again. There is a wonderful portrait of the man written by Russell Fraser. It includes this anecdote from a student of his, the author Geoffrey Wolff:

Having completed a first novel, he went to Blackmur for sympathetic counsel. “Put it in your desk drawer,” Blackmur said. This, Wolff supposed, was the old Horatian chestnut. Leave the manuscript alone for a while, then come back to it fresh? “No,” Blackmur said, “that is not my advice to you. My advice is to put it in your desk drawer, lock your desk drawer, lose the key to your desk drawer. However, keys are sometimes found, returned to their owners. This could happen, so I would set fire to your desk.”

 

 

Live. Park. Die.

And whatever we do [later in life], it doesn’t seem to amount to nearly the sort of potential that we seemed to have held in the parking lot. In the parking lot, we were dynamos, whirlwinds. We were rulers. We had complete autonomy. We had it all in a world that had nothing to offer us.

— Scott Meiggs, in The Parking Lot Movie, dir. by Meghan Eckman

This post is a spin-off from a Facebook post by Jon Malesic. Jon is an unemployed theologian, currently writing a book about work, an occasional contributor to The New Republic, and a former employee of The Corner Parking Lot, appearing in the film adaptation. Add to this his time making sushi at the Tokyo Rose and his residency on Graves Street and you can see, or not, why he is widely regarded, among a small circle, as secretly cool. I look forward to reading his book and hope for its success. In this struggle we are in, whatever it is, he is one of the good guys, and by adding his voice to the public conversation he makes it just that much more like one worth having, and less like a screaming hellstorm.

In his post Jon quotes the lines above (and you really should hear them as they are spoken, I don’t know how well they come across without Meiggs’ voice in mind) and relates them to his own thinking about work and dignity.

“At some point, our potential seems limitless, and it’s tempting to pin our dignity and self-esteem to that potential. Even in middle age and beyond, it’s good to imagine that our greatest moments are in the future; without that, we have no basis for self-development. So we need to dream of our potential.

But when we do so, there’s always a catastrophe lurking ahead. For most of us, our imagination is greater than the sum of our willpower, luck, and circumstance. We don’t fulfill our potential.”

So it would be good to have something else to pin our dignity to, besides our potential.

An excellent point, which was followed lively and thoughtful discussion in comments, taking up the subject of potential and its disappointments. My own comment was at something of an angle to this, maybe because the idea of having potential in a worldly sense was always too fearful for me too entertain, the disappointment and the shame too early embedded and bone-deep to be shaken off in any flight of hope. And my refusal and resentment, against any who would put claim or judgment on such potential or its realization, or the lack thereof, too strong. What I found in Scott Meiggs’ words  was counter to this, an expression of liberation. So I wrote:

To return to the original text, and the genius of Scott Meiggs, I take it to be about the joy of boundlessness, as a present experience. It is not about anticipating being dynamos, whirlwinds, rulers, but being those things at the time. Potential is not something that realizes its value at some point in the future, but presently. Living in the moment. The curious thing about living in the moment (in this fun way, not some boring mindfulness trip) is how it seems to depend on some sense of the future, of potentiality. “I can enjoy this now because there is so much more to come.” Maybe because it is not really the moment but the flow of moments that is lived in, which implies a future to flow into. All that is asked of the future is that it not be a boundary. It is not about thinking you have great things in store for you, but in not thinking you don’t have great things in store for you. This is very far from the potential solemnly discussed by educators and employers. It is lighting out for the territory, Walt Whitman, rock’n’roll. It is The Corner Parking Lot.

It took a bit of time to write this, so I thought– may as well recycle it in the blog. Elevate it from the mosquito-infested swamp of Facebook to the desolate and lonely highlands of WordPress. Also, today is a day I wanted to write something– for? in honor of? dedicated to? it is hard to say exactly– an old friend, now away, but always close within me, a permanent part of what I know it to be alive. And I did not know what to write, not until Jon Malesic brought me back to Scott Meiggs. And his words seemed just right. I can’t say I ever managed to be a dynamo or a whirlwind myself. I never had the talent for it. But notice the plural, the all-important ‘we’ and ‘us’. Sometimes I got to live in the plural, despite myself. Sometimes with her. And sometimes it was just like that. And I will never forget it.

Saying “us against the world” like we would win.

And I don’t know, maybe that was just youth, and things will never be so again, the potential fading away. Maybe or maybe not. The past tense does not mean gone, but remembered. What was, is. I feel as if I have been in a valedictory mood my whole life. And yet, during that whole span, haven’t I have been moving forward in time, and would that not make my farewells in truth greetings? To hell with the forward-lookers, piously peering into the future. You can’t see anything there. All the potential is here, in experience, which is memory, which may be love. More of that, please.

Whatever. We suffer and we die. That can’t be of any great importance. Except by way of contrast. Except because we were, or are, alive, with boundless potential, having it all even if the world has nothing to offer us.