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Live. Park. Die.

September 9, 2016

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.

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One Comment
  1. Thank you for reflecting further on this important question. I stop by this rarefied zone only occasionally — much to my discredit. You got me thinking about potential in a much deeper way, and I think I’ve come around to understanding the Subverbian Interpretation of Meiggs, Fragment 17. The potential of a young person who scored 170 on the LSAT is one thing. There’s undeniable grounds for self-esteem in it, but it’s fragile. This kind of potential doesn’t last. It has to turn into actuality, or else it just dies. It is, however, the sort of potential that is widely recognized and revered in our world.

    But now I think I see that Meiggs is talking about the sort of potential you’re talking about. (Maybe he’s talking about both kinds at once. Someone should write a dissertation on this fragment.) It’s potential (or potentia?) that is simultaneously actualized in the moment, albeit not perhaps in what we call “the world.” It is certainly not the kind of potential you can measure with an LSAT. Recruiters won’t jump up and notice that kind of potential. It can last — at least until one commits oneself existentially toward “the world.” Maybe that is the tragedy that Meiggs gestures toward. Most of us leave the garden, the parking lot, eventually. We give up our complete autonomy for some reason. We’re fools.

    Thoreau may be helpful here, too.

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