Where he would die was a life-long obsession for Arthur Sand. He was at this point, half-way through that length of time that he knew, or at least had once read in an orphaned copy of the Economist at the airport in Atlanta, was typical for a Caucasian male in a developed country. He kept a record of the possibilities, and, on occasions of unbearable tedium such as standing in-line waiting for a flight to board, he would unfurl his map of ideal places to die and spread it before his mind’s eye. With relish, he would smoothen the imaginary creases, taking a moment to briefly review the folds for any signs of wear.
Typically, he would start his purview in the regimental chapel. Brass plates and torn flags. “Robert McKinley, born, Galway, Ireland, 12th Regiment, Irish Fusiliers, died Bengal. David MacCauley, born, Edinburgh, Irish Guard, died Natal, South Africa.” During the weekend mornings, before the artisans gathered in the market outside, he would stand alone in the three-naved chapel. The floor was covered with remnants of medieval gravestones, names slowly worn away by visitors. “Connor de Burgh, 1714, late sheriff of this citiye, a widow’s son.” How beautifully still, summer light flowing through the large stained-glass rose-window. So many soldiers lying in such calm silence. It seemed unlikely. The stone knight lay in full-repose, clutching his petrified sword. What did these dead men feel here in the loamy deep rich moist soils of home? Did they replay memories of India? Visions of magnificent Afghan warlords seen for the first time through the sights of their muskets? Did a pair of green eyes beneath a veil in Peshwar now and forever haunt their thoughts? How could they bear it then, to be buried here within earshot of all they knew, remembering all that they had found?
Calling groups 2 and 3.
He ran his finger across the dry paper, delighting in the thoughts of geography and adventure that trailed his gaze, like seagulls following a trawler at sea. Fiji. Self-conscious hesitation. Lapping, peaceful blue turquoise waters. He was not himself, but someone transmuted and free. He was nothing, owning nothing, receiving no communications and was clothed as befit the purpose of the day rather than for any care for typical customs or modesty. He was human with them, and after all these years, he was now sure that they too were so with him. They sat surrounding. His aged and failing mind would play with the words of his mother tongue, long since resigned to use merely as a type of music. E-l-a-b-o-r-a-t-e. P-o-l-y-d-a-c-t-y-l. He would laugh at puns that only he could understand, some more humorous than others. Now they laughed too. Men emerging from the sea between his eyelids. A-m-p-h-i-b-i-a-n. The taste of fresh sea-urchin soaked in Vanderford’s orange juice. V-a-i-n-g-l-o-r-i-o-u-s. Perhaps he had helped these people in some way during his life. Perhaps they had come to love him. Perhaps, on this day, they would flood the small harbor with dugouts, bellow into a great conch-shell and scatter on the sea the ashes of one who had known the full bargain of their friendship and family. The sea!? No, not the sea – how irreversible! No, in the palm-grove on the bluff, where one can look out to sea and watch the world from afar. Perhaps catch a ship forever on the horizon. And yet, amid more than his fair share of beauty, he was so far from home. He felt disloyal to the graves of those from whom he had begot.
He was certain that one location was surely so awful, the manner of the passing there so ignoble that it could not be endured. The horror of it in fact had given birth to his map. Manhattan. In his life, he had lived there for a while and indeed quite liked it, with mixed feelings, as with anything. It was one of the few places in the United States where he felt he did not have to apologize for thinking. And yet, perhaps born out of this peculiarity, it seemed now to his older mind a town full of conceit, smugness, and the typical adolescent pretensions and affectations of those who do not yet realize they are about to die. It happens in a kitchen in an atomistic apartment with a large and intentionally de-personalizing number. 5603. “Oh, the man in 5603 died,” she would say returning to bed on a Saturday morning, firm-breasted and young, reading the obituary. The television would almost immediately quench their memories of him with a warning on the importance of being regular. Days before, he had been lying on the floor, unable to move, listening to them fuck while he waited. “J G Wentworth. Mattress-discounters. Cialis. This is unlike any computer we’ve ever made before. In a sense it’s not a computer at all. It’s you. Get the channels you want, when you want them. Have you been injured in a workplace accident?” He had never felt sufficiently at home in that apartment to want to change the kitchen-cabinets. And now those cabinets were the only witnesses to his departure. Too much fucking beige.
Please turn off all electrical devices at this time.
Would America ever do? Perhaps the Rockies, but he had never been. He had seen photographs and films and the vast expanses of pristine untouched nature seemed sufficiently beautiful to warrant his last breath. Upwards, peaks, clean, majestic, undisciplined, devoid of advertising. Perhaps there was a sunlit glade, the seasons passing quietly by. The nights still and filled with constellations, tales of Araby? Perhaps a camper would light a fire nearby and read aloud from Thoreau or Whitman. That would be a pleasant evening. Maybe? America, – such a strange land. Imagine being tied to its disappointments forever. No doubt they would find some ingenious double-talking way to screw it all up. I couldn’t bear to have to watch them beggar themselves with progress and be unable to leave. A drill-bit mangling through my bones, some plaid-bellied foreman bending down to toss my skull aside. Farting. And yet perhaps they wouldn’t, or perhaps the mountains would endure nonetheless as they had always done.
“Please fasten your seatbelt sir.”
“Oh I’m sorry.”
The plane taxied to the runway. Across the aisle there was a woman from India. She had a child with large brown eyes. She was beautiful.
The isolated mountains of Provence. Manon de Sources. Home of the Cathar heretics, the lethal pot-shot taking camaraderie of the Croix de Lorraine. Sunlight pouring through the open door of the farmhouse imperceptibly nestled among the cypress trees along a golden ridge.
The woman’s husband sat beside her. He was tall and disinterested, with that stern look that stupid people wear when they are trying to appear commanding.
Shelves lined with books and old friends. A wrought iron-bed. Fresh tomatoes left by the door by a friend. Tuesday. Ever the optimist. The birds outside in summer. He knew there was a half a bottle of rosé left in the fridge. Last week a letter, a paper letter.
The mother’s face was sweet and gentle. He thought what a waste for a woman like that to spend a lifetime with a man like him.
At this point this felt best. His spirit gently flowing from him, through the memories of laughing dinners on the terrace and out into a countryside devoid of modernity and soaked in history. He would feel the cloth sheets, old paper, warm stone, friendly timber, transcendent blue-green glass.
What a beautiful child.
The plane began to increase in speed. He secretly loved how the acceleration forced him back into the chair and then that ecstasy at takeoff. The lift beneath the wings. The moisture flickering violently on the window as if nature herself was shocked by such obscene acceleration. Suspended now, in the air, between points, beyond choice or control. He was smiling. His mind was silent. He closed his eyes.
She smelled of jasmine and something else.
“Can I stay?”
He leaned against the jam of the door. Tweed against timber. Behind him darkness. Despite all my thoughts, now was the moment of choosing. My heart was beating loudly in my chest. I looked back at the room, the artifacts of my domesticity. In that second, somebody else in me said yes. The barrel of the gun over his shoulder, kissed the doorway as he slipped inside. The door closed and locked.
We sat in the darkness, by the fire. His face wrapped in shadow. Periodically the embers, finding some fresh unconsumed part of the log, would momentarily cast a greater light that tried in vain to penetrate the shroud. I searched how to make conversation without questions. The silence grew uncomfortable. I reached to the table for the knife, and some bread.
The wind was picking up outside. I searched the trees, darker shades of black set against the navy sky, for unfamiliar patterns. I knew that he had not found my door by accident, that he had been brought here by desperation and opportunity, that there would be others. The walls blinkered my view. I thought to get to a vantage point, from the windows upstairs, but I could not leave him.
He ate the bread without butter. Dirt trapped under his fingernails.
“Are you healthy?”
My grandfather’s clock marked the hour, unconscious of the need for silence. Staring into the fire, each avoiding the gaze of the other. Time passing. He sat hunched over in the darkness.
I remember kneeling beside my mother in the church as a boy, sitting vigil at midnight mass as Christ waited in the garden for them to take him. So unusual, to a boy, seeing all those villagers there, kneeling in the darkness. A single candle, a black cloth draping the cross. Even the priest is silent. All I can hear is breathing, I cannot tell whether it is mine or that of others around me. Two-hundred of us. My mother’s fingers pass quietly across each rosary bead. Her lips moving slightly as she prays in her mind. She seems to begin each prayer with my inhalation. I could feel him among us. Fingers through beads. Waiting through time. I must be slipping in and out of consciousness, perhaps I am sleeping and awakening.
I became aware again of where I was. I got up quietly and went to the kitchen to fill the teapot. I realized too late that there was now nothing between him and the stairs. The familiar sound of water filling a teapot. I returned. He had not moved. The flames reoriented as I nestled the vessel among the embers. I could see a white bandage peer from beneath his over-sized coat.
“Let me see that.”
It began to rain outside. I untied his rags.
“It was just some barbed wire on the hills.”
In that moment I knew the path he had taken to my door. I knew the way he had come, why and who he was.
“Were you followed?”
“I don’t think so.”
There was no moon outside. The water in the teapot began to boil. I reached for the old tea-caddy and stirred in two spoons and lifted the pot off the fire.
“It’s fresh, but I should scald it.”
I poured the boiling tea over his hand. The blood and dirt mixed with it and poured among the ashes. He bit into his bearded lower lip and said nothing. I reached into the closet for old rags lost among knitting needles and fairytale books. One of the needles fell to the floor. He stared at me briefly and then looked into the fire as I wrapped his hand in a fresh rag. He tilted his head wistfully as if studying how the flames consumed the remaining wood. Surrendering. I tied the knot. He looked at me, thanked me, and motioned to get up and leave.
It didn’t rain for three months in the summer of nineteen eighty four.
“This is how the Romans built drains,” he said.
His hands were leathery and he smelled like history. I smelled it again in the Cathedral at Rouen. They too were our people. He handled a large rectangular cuboid shaped stone. An igneous rock, with crystals glistening in the sunlight. His biceps flexed as he held it. Sinews. It made a sound as it hit the side wall of the long drain that stretched across the landscape like a scar. Schtumpf! The Romans never reached here. Then we came.
“One like that on either side, and then a flagstone across the top. Before the cement pipes, that’s how they did it. And it’s still useful when you come to a bend, a rock that can’t be destroyed or a whitethorn tree.”
You can’t cut a whitethorn tree. They are protected by legend, the love of the local people. Hunched heads over warm jars of hot sweet tea whispered stories about those that had cut them. It was how the people of the Goddess Dana got home at night. That’s what they used to say. The light bark caught the moonlight.
He moved forward two or three feet and repeated the process. Schtumpf! Gradually, under the golden sunlight, a secret underground waterway snaked through the heather.
“Layer pebbles, then small rocks and then bigger rocks and then topsoil. Then seed it and where once there was wilderness, you’ll have rich blue grass. Then milk. Then beef.
There was not a single cloud in the sky. A curlew flew over head. He bent back to look up at the small shadow cross in blue.
“She’s free. I’ve never seen a pair. I suppose there has to be another.”
Rain. Several cars were lined up at the traffic light. I sat in the passenger seat and stared vacantly at the glowing hue of their brake-lights. I would need a new grey pants for my uniform. School was starting again in a week. The last two years. Time to get serious. A large concrete block of apartments, some 13 stories tall. Entire families lived in each of those, supposedly. Why? A Citroen pulled-in to the side of road to get out of the way of traffic.
“They had great engineering, ahead of their time, but it meant no one could fix them.”
Airport. Just like Columbus. Ferdie and Isob. I was surprised that the yellow taxi-cabs looked just like the ones in the movies.
“What number on Madison?”
“1376. Thank you.”
Everything smells different. I might be inside a television. That strange feeling of knowing something you don’t, and how to talk to people you’ve never met before. You couldn’t get lost here if you tried. Everything is sign-posted. Highway. Faucet. Garbage.
“And you have a beautiful view of the city from here.”
The tea was weak. Have I ever been this high?
When the wind blows through blue grass it turns silver in the moonlight.
Alexander Lutchek refused to be wet. This resolution passed through his mind as he stood outside the “Hot Yoga” studio on Connecticut Avenue in Washington DC. To those passing by, including the local artist, Thomas Brown (who would later that evening paint the most famous work of his life, Connecticut Clown), Lutchek presented a most incongruous figure. Six feet tall, decked in a bright green jacket and bearing several large and brightly wrapped Christmas presents, Lutchek was, despite his refusal, drenched to the skin. Until that moment Lutchek had been having one of his better days. The majority of the gifts that he had purchased for loved ones, near and far, were perfectly suited for their intended recipients. This made him happier. So much happier in fact that the co-occurrence of these events seemed numinous to him. Fundamentally, he felt, his very fate had changed. He had spent much of the day imagining these gifts being opened on a chilly Christmas morning, beneath a perfectly appointed and illuminated tree. Even though he would not be there, he foresaw how the gifts themselves would eagerly escape their wrapping, inhale the pine and roast-turkey scented air of their new home in a distant land. Mother. This joy he felt in being outside of his own preoccupations, the interminable imprisonment of his own mind, led perfectly to a mood that guaranteed the spiritual success of his evening yoga class. Like the dawn breaking across a large expanse of flat countryside, this feeling of oneness with the world, this happy conclusion that all-in-all, most was best throughout the commonwealth, began to call forth thoughts of New Year’s resolutions and various enterprises for self-improvement. “It’s a matter of style, it’s how you carry yourself,” he thought as he reached for the door. Everything would fall into place. And then, as he opened the front door of the studio, one of DC’s blond-haired, white-pearled, BMW-driving K Street lobbyists, summarily splashed the contents of the city’s largest pothole directly, completely, and exclusively on the person of Mr. Lutchek. As the smell of discarded cigarette butts, strip-club detergent and the rubber-residue of a thousand tyres journeyed up his nose, the elegant calligraphy of the notes he attached to each of his deftly wrapped presents, began to dissolve into illegible, blackrose murky inkblots. It was precisely this scene that Brown would hang in the nearby National Portrait Gallery the following summer. Though one of the gallery’s most regular visitors, Lutchek would never see this painting.
The deep red hue of the traffic light drove Alice Foley into the past. Ringless fingers tightened on the steering wheel. At the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and S Street NW she lay under the Christmas tree as a child. Staring into the multicolored lights, she enjoyed how each one in turn had the capacity to change her mood. The pink; all things sweet, an August pencil case. The green; mercurial and otherworldly, a Victorian bodice. The blue; cold and industrial, things that had to be done. The red; the warmth of her father’s face. She missed him then and missed him still. No man since had such a light. No man since had ever been able, even in the most intimate of ecstasies, to lessen her grip on that want. She saw her small hands on his face. Now those hands were long, the flesh looser again this year. She lost awareness of herself and where she actually was when she imagined hearing that key in the door, the inhalation of his lifting, the evening stubble on his face, the solidity of his embrace, the guarantee that he would always be there. She knew that she ought to be grateful to have friends that would invite her to their celebrations this year, as they had so many before. She saw herself, navigating around strangers as she filled her plate from the credenza. An insufficient man would again carve the turkey this year. She was never stuck for words. It was her profession. She would drink no more than two glasses of wine. How had it come to this? Her foot pressed on the accelerator, even before the light had turned. She saw the yoga-studio and the door opening. She accelerated rapidly towards the pothole. Her feelings likewise dashed faster than her ability to analyze or stop them. She found a forbidden peace in letting go. As the author, only I can tell you what she never will. Since her father’s death in the Vietnam War, she had, as so many of us do, sublimated and redirected her feelings into a determined work-ethic. This had served her well, materially, but as we can see from the above, there were obvious wounds left untended. She associated the yoga studio with a self-indulgence she claims to have never afforded herself. She had of course never been inside a yoga-studio. No. That’s not true. She had once, briefly, to convert a gift voucher she had been given into cash. In any case she considered such things affected, impractical “balderdash.” (Her father had never actually used that word). Beneath her indictment, lay a reluctance to turn inward to the things that sat waiting for her there, and beneath that reluctance a knowledge that she would remain forever staring at a stoplight until she did.
It was not gallantry that inspired Gabriel Guttman to let the blond-haired woman in the BMW into the lane before him. He loved BMW. As he watched the curved hips of the vehicle present themselves before him, he thought of how perfectly each component within performed its function. He relished thinking how the pistons moved cleanly in each cylinder, the timed ignition of the controlled explosion in each chamber. It was the precision, the order of it all, that drove his lust. It represented a predictability in the affairs of man, a deliverance from arbitrariness and compounded misfortune, that he reluctantly felt could only exist in the the north. That is why he left. That is why, for now, he filled potholes for the City. He reached into a small box beside him for one of the cookie rings that his son had made for him. It was an incredibly good cookie, crumbly but moist. He looked at it in his hand, disbelieving. He placed the remainder in his mouth. My son. There was a card at the bottom of the now empty box on which was written in precociously elegant hand; “Por Papa, Todo mi amor.” He gasped to stop himself from reacting in a way that would embarrass him. When he thought of Christmas he was filled with trepidation. He loved how the house would fill with his brothers and their wives and children. He loved how he and his brothers would tell the same stories they always told each other about the ridiculous excuses that they had invented on the spot as children to appease their angered German-immigrant father. ” . . . era el chupacabras” was the punch-line that could still bend them all over in tears of laughter after all these years. Gabriel knew his son was gay. And despite his wife’s suspicions, that much did not bother him. At least not as much as she thought. He knew to the extent that it did so, such feelings were merely a function of the world in which he had grown up. He knew that there was another world, the world that he wanted for his son, in which it didn’t matter. “The greatest artists of the world. . . Alexander the Great . . . ” he found himself rehearsing the defense. But he knew that with his brothers, this defense would be futile. He prayed that there would be no incident this year that would would cause his oldest brother to stare at him. But in truth, he didn’t care what he had to endure. He worried most of what his son would have to endure. And he knew that eventually his son would seek an end to the need for such endurance. He had watched others leave their families before. He sometimes saw men alone on Christmas Day in the city and thought that that must be why they were alone. Men without women. “Will I lose my son?” “Todo mi amor?” He reached for the clipboard beside him that listed a large pothole at the corner of Connecticut and S Street NW. As he turned on the emergency stop lights, he drew a line through this, the last job of the day. He was excited to imagine his key in the lock of the front door to his house, to anticipate feeling his daughter’s small hands on his face as he lifted her into the air. He shifted the gear into park. He stopped. Sat back in the seat of his truck. He caught his own eyes looking at him in the letterbox rear-view mirror. “I swear, I will never lose my son.” The BMW in front of him left skid-marks as it accelerated. Gabriel winced in anticipation. He heard the wheel of the BMW hit the edge of road. A large wave of water arched several feet into the air and soaked a man as he stepped onto the street. Gabriel felt guilty and sorry that he had not gotten here sooner. He thought the man looked like a type of clown. Drenched in bright colors.
My grandfather was a farmer, by which I mean he was endowed with all the wisdom and knowledge that one can only absorb through a childhood and several decades spent in dialogue with nature in all her many forms. I used to spend my summers on his farm. He would greet me at the start of my school holidays with the same expression; “you are free to do all manner of things, from pitch and toss to manslaughter, and if anyone says anything you should tell them to come and talk to me. I will tell them that you have my authority and all my blessings.” And with that as my ambassadorial seal, I headed for the mountains.
There was always something new to be found where the earth met the sky as if all things were drawn by an upward magnetism towards the heavens, momentarily delayed only by gravity and larksong. And so all things gathered there to wait and drink hot sweet tea from re-purposed jam jars. “Nottingham.” I ran my fingers over the raised glass at the bottom of the jar, rapidly cooling now as it filled with mountain-top emptiness. Between bites of soft white fresh and thickly cut bread I would pick small blue berries from among the heather that covered the slopes. The berries were both sweet and tart at the same time. They were delicious. They were mysterious too because we could never translate exactly what they were. In Hiberno-English, drawing from the old Gaelic language, they were called hurts. They were known throughout the mountains as such and if you asked people they would speak of them as a half-remembered blessing, an unexpected generosity of nature, like an old 50 pound note found in a tea-caddy. But when I returned to the city, no one knew what I was talking about. I told them they were called wild-hurts but the teachers would stand mute, their black ties as long as their suspicion. I tried looking up the word in botany books in the library but I could not find them there. These ambiguous berries remained the exclusive fruit of a linguistic oasis in the sky.
Between the summers I dreamed of those berries, crushed with the back of a fork, sprinkled with sugar and transformed into an instant smile-producing, eye-closing, white-shirt destroying jam. From some angles they looked gray. From another dark blue. Some were more sweet, some more tart. They were wild – untamed and only ever to be consumed in locations where the wind rushed through your hair and you had to turn your face in on yourself to catch a breath. They were to my childhood tongue and memory the taste of freedom.
As I added the final full-stop to the final answer to the final question in the final exam of my school year, red-curtains, like those on the Muppet Show, would separate in my mind’s eye and I would see myself in the arms of the mountain eating wild hurts. As I grew older and my head became more and more filled with thoughts of progress, standardization, output and the machine, I thought that these wild hurts had frolicked in freedom long enough and that I would bring them down from the mountains and grow them in the low-lands, on flat ground where machines could run through them in summer and we would have hurt-jam – an elixir, the absence of which in the commonwealth to that point befuddled my understanding and inflamed my greed.
My grandfather interrogated me as he saw me heading up the mountain with shovels and equipment with which to dig out the root-balls.
“I am going to see if we can grow them down here and perhaps make something of it.” I replied.
“You can’t. No one ever has.”
“Tosh – I will.”
The wild hurts didn’t have a root-ball like most other plants. The soil on the mountain-tops was less fertile and so the roots spread out close to the surface and were feathery with only an occasional stem here and there aspiring to any sort of woody permanence. It was frustrating, but in the end I had what I thought might be enough – six or seven clumps of roots. I imagined that they would be a little shocked when I took them to the lowlands but that once they adapted they would bask in the nutrient rich soil and grow into cohesiveness. The violence of my labors would be overlooked and a rich bounty of those magical blue berries would come with the harvest.
They died within days. It was not for want of water or sunlight. It was not for want of fertilizer. It wasn’t even for want of their original soil because thinking as much I brought sufficient enough of it that their roots must have been ignorant of their new surroundings. And yet they dried out and faded.
My Grandfather, in passing, said there are things that cannot be cultivated. There are things that are born wild and it doesn’t matter what anyone does, once that freedom is taken from them, they die.
I remember the sight of larks soaring in the sky.
When I realize something, I often look back and see a path connecting things I previously knew so that my realization becomes at once revelatory and obvious. Several neurons in my brain rush to meet each other and then slow as they approach, realize that they have been neighbors all this time and then conclude with a sheepish “wazzup.” Nonetheless, I fantasize that this consistency belies a deeper profound significance and that my unlocking of it has unleashed a universal truth. The trailer for my imagined biography depicts my purchase of a seamless robe and my holding forth on the trading floor of the Chicago Commodity Exchange, converting commodity-traders with every word. That broadcast is soon interrupted by a public service announcement to the effect that I have been such a terrible dolt for so long that a law has been passed prohibiting my consumption of quality meat. I had just such an experience this morning in the bathroom. I was standing in front of the mirror, my mouth open, my eyes staring through themselves. A toothbrush rested on a shy molar and a long stretching minty flavored stalactite of spittle flowed out of my mouth and reached slowly, I would say elegantly, for the exasperated sink-bowl below. Upstairs a number of thoughts were coming together.
In my family, my Grandfather is held in the highest esteem and thoughts of him to this day instantly flood us all with feelings of undiluted love. His profound modesty insured his immortality in our hearts. I think that as a boy I must have been either aware that I was in the presence of a great wisdom or that some day the sun would simply not rise in quite the same way. During one of the magical summers I spent with him I hounded him daily with a single question. That summer I was reading about Alexander the Great and the role of his great teacher Aristotle. I fancied that I was Alexander the Great and so clearly I had need for an Aristotle.
“What advice would you give me that I can keep with me throughout my life?” I asked my Grandfather.
For weeks he avoided answering the question.
“What little do I know of the world that you should ask me for advice about it!” he replied.
But nothing can stop a tenacious child with an endless summer and eventually he spoke.
“I wish I had said less,” he replied.
Not quite getting the tone and suspecting that it was his indirect way of suggesting that I pipe-down I pushed him to assess the sincerity of his suggestion.
“Sometimes I’ve said such stupid things,” he continued, “and I knew once the words had left my mouth, but there was no way of taking them back and if I only had stayed quiet, everyone would have been better off.”
The gaze in his eyes was not fixed in the present. He was in some place before me, perhaps before my father if not before himself. I now felt like my search for Aristotle had cost too much and incapable of bearing a second of anything less than his happiness, I nudged him and tried to make light of the whole thing and said;
“Sometimes we all say things and they are just words, its just talk.”
He was not regretful or sad but the feeling seemed more like a craftsman looking back on something he had made and being a little annoyed by some aspect of it.
“Sometimes its better to say less,” he concluded.
I took this, wrapped it in my own ignorance and placed it inside my heart for a future where perhaps I would understand it better. As the years passed I added to that inheritance something my father told me as I became a young man;
“All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to stay quiet.”
And something my mother said:
“Never use the word hate.”
These three wisdoms are my inheritance. I often unfold them from their napkins at times when I need either guidance or courage. I have looked at each, sometimes excluding the other. I’ve balanced them, favored some and discounted others, often to serve my own ends. But lately they have become in my mind, like the stars in Orion’s Belt; aligned.
In my first lecture at University, my English Literature professor began:
“The world is made of stories. Stories we tell each other about the world around us and ourselves about that which lies within.”
If this is true, and I increasingly believe that it is vitally so, then words are the building blocks of what we call reality. All three pieces of advice, given to me by my family, center around a belief in the potency of words. In alignment they read;
“Words have power, use them with judgment and justice, otherwise you will create a hell for yourself.”
Neuroscience supports the statement that consistently repeated thoughts create neural pathways in the brain that makes it more likely that subsequent thoughts will follow the same path. But consistently used words can also create consistent thought patterns. Change your words and over time you can change your thoughts. Hateful words preserve hateful thoughts and end with our becoming hateful. Right speech can create right mind and words can maketh the man.
For now, it is not important why I am in a wooden crate in a warehouse on the outskirts of Toronto. And you should not let your curiosity fool you into thinking that the series of events that led me to being in this situation is anything other than banal and commonplace. Some of your assumptions you can rely on. This voice is the voice of a fully grown man and not some art-school experiment where you have to appreciate the inner monologue of a mangosteen. You may also rely on the assumption that this event is happening today and that by crate I mean a wooden box of cuboid form of the type in which you might expect to find the Ark of the Covenant. With those three confirmed assumptions and the aforementioned geographic location, everyone will understand how you thought that this was about a curled-up man in a box in Canada. Within that frame, all that matters are my thoughts. It may seem a little brusque to say so, but without wanting to seem any more rude than necessary, let me remind you that there are other boxes.
One of the obvious luxuries of being in a crate is that it affords a perfect theatre in which to enjoy one’s own thoughts. Some people said that cinema was finished once the VCR came out. Now we live in the age of the video and yet cinema thrives. Only mice realize that cinema is a ritual and the screen an inter-ontological elevator of uncertain direction. When four or five people stop in the street to stare at something, say the ever-increasing shadow cast by a suicidal piano, they are soon joined by several more and several more etc. Evolution has schooled us to obtain information as soon as possible, which is why we have rubber necks. Imagine then how that little nubbin deep in our brain reacts to a room of two or three hundred people voluntarily placing themselves in a darkened space, all looking forward, in the same direction, at a single screen. That act is cinema, or mass. In both cases, this ritual tells that primordial nubbin, one single, urgent, undistracted message; God is going to come out of that wall. You see this effect most noticeably in children. With adults it is tempered only slightly by the fact that when it comes to dates, no one can stand you up like God. Hence the crate.
I imagine that all across the United States, in the various technology companies that we have come to think of as secular-Santas, engineers and pre-postal employees in white coats and nipple-rings are trying to develop a single storage solution in which one can keep all of one’s movies, photos, music, and experiences. I already have one of these devices attached to the end of my rubbery neck. It is divided into sections with a common motherboard. The first section contains recordings of everything that I have ever known. A red admiral butterfly caught flapping in a spider-web in the dark wooden corner above my cot as a baby and the sound of that desperate flapping. My first taste of sushi and how the term “raw fish” kept flashing in front of my mind’s eye in the most gag-inducing incarnations of the serif font. Then there is my imagination, part two. It uses a fair amount of the data contained in memory but either augments or synthesizes it to such a degree that it can create images and feelings about things I have never known.
When I am in a wooden crate . . . I should tell you that this is not the first time. (Door-to-door its difficult to find a more economical way to see the world.) When I am in a wooden crate, I spend much of my time imagining because its simply fantastic. Nobody says fantastic anymore because its become too fantastic but for me fantastic will always be fantastic. A whole host of new scenery, sights, sounds, sensations and all filmed superbly, just so, as I would like to be able to do myself; though the time to devote to acquiring that skill has to date eluded me.
Normally at this point I would be naked. Liberally? No . . . urgently. Yes. Applying sun-block in one of either two states of mind; rushing to get it done as fast as possible and consequently missing a spot or, channeling the conscientiousness of a Swiss watch-maker to ensure that I cover those awfully painful spots I previously missed. Its such a pain because its so predictable – down to having to wash your hands because they become so slippery, down to the high likelihood that the molecules in the cheap soap will be too large to get under the film of the cream so that in the end you are just wiping it off on the towel. Guilt, sun-glasses, sandals and out the door. Panic and pants. Relief. I now avoid all that.
Google Software Update is about to be installed. Accept and Install. Loading myplaces.kml. Adding overlays. Toronto. Latitude 43.655830 degrees, Longitude -79.459649, Elevation 101 meters. But in my mind; Lembongan, Bali, Latitude -8.693265, Longitude 115.435745, Elevation 2 meters. Beach. Sometimes, especially when I am alone on a beach, I imagine that I have a personal relationship with the Gods. The Gods are usually Greek, and tall, and on their way to a party at which I will be discussed in passing. I am Achilles and I have been brought to this table of sand and sea, as one does with a hero now and again. Alone on a beach, or in a box, it is easier to imagine one’s own importance. The sea hypnotizes me, swinging the pendulum of the tide back and forth in my ears. Everything melts. Quiet. Warm gentle sun. The Gods are telling me something but I am so out of it. I am lost, drifting in a quiet womb in which time is marked only by the rhythms of my mother’s beating heart. Deus ex machina, ex ante.
When I was a young boy, my Uncle gave me his stamp collection as a gift. He had spent much of his childhood in Africa and the album was full of stamps from exotic places and many more were over a hundred years old. Sometimes I would open the collection and run my fingers across the embossed squares of paper and slip into day-dreams of times before my own and countries whose names had long since ceased to exist, like Aden, Ceylon and Sarawak! These stamps had come from these foreign lands, and times before, smelled spices in the air and heard river-boats depart in the steamy morning. They had been affixed to epistles by the banks of the Nile or had rubbed the coarse skin of an elephant along the dusty red-earthed road to a village. They had borne Kings and Queens and dictators and freedom-fighters and, with equal bearing, their successors. They had felt things I never knew and knew things I never felt. They had smelled fragrances so pleasing and beautiful that those that have never known those flowers have never known the true extent of happiness. In short, they were witnesses to great adventures and were respected as such.
How different it is today. While traveling through Asia I blogged, Twittered and Flickrd my way through tropical islands, jungle, permafrost and palace. I SMSd my thoughts to loved ones and these communications were received instantly. I recall a friend of mine receiving a photo I uploaded in Northern Thailand while she was in an airport in Atlanta, Georgia. That was amazing to me. But while the content of the photo communicated the message that I am riding elephants in Thailand, the thing itself had no meta-data. Indeed there was no thing – there was her cellphone and my photo on it but nothing else. There was no frayed edge because someone in Singapore had thrown my letter roughly into a ship. There was no bent corner where a customs official in San Francisco had stepped on the mail bag containing my postcard as he searched for contraband durian. There was no thing. It ceased to exist so that we could share a moment in an instant. Yet something extra was lost. And though I have saved the photos that I took and backed-up the Twitters that I sent, when I print them, they print on new paper. Ignorant, blank and stupid.
Something big is now gone. Each second feels amazingly new. I think. Is it just a matter of time before the Narrative returns? Where are we all going to go? What is this town? Former train-passengers now mill around the entrance to the station, neither leaving nor arriving. I smell coffee and wonder why the seller made it. I see a man with wooden tennis rackets in one of those square wooden vice braces with the wing nuts that you use to prevent the wood from bending. Is this Trieste or Sitges? It feels like it could be both, either, neither. I look up around the station for signs but there are none. I try and tune into the words being spoken around me but I can’t detect the language. Everyone is understandable to me even though I know they are not speaking in English. They are all asking themselves the same question. Four or five people in addition to me have spotted the man with the tennis rackets and we are all speculating as to what he was planning to do. Someone recognizes the colors on his sweater as those of Oxford University. Another wonders why anyone has wooden tennis rackets anymore. Someone else thinks he might by Bjorn Borg. Two people think its funny to arrive at a place of not-knowing ready to play tennis. I feel on my face that I too am smiling. I fall back on the comfort of old habits and decide a coffee will help. The vendor rises to meet my eye as I walk towards him and he pours me a cup that reaches my hand in perfect timing as I arrive beside him. I feel the coffee is comforting. A large number of people turn, look at me and walk past me to the vendor. I head for the space opening up behind them. I can feel the observations of everyone about every detail of our location though no one seems to know where we are. The crowd moves across the tiled floor like a flock of starlings. I think about emergence. A tall, elderly man, with white hair smiles at me. I feel he is from Zurich, a professor, physics, quantum. He needs coffee. It is funny to see everyone drinking coffee at the same time. Are people talking? I don’t see mouths moving but I feel chatter, constantly. Where am I going to sleep tonight? Everyone looks at me. The crowd moves towards the exit. This is annoying. We are all sharing the same thoughts. Can I have a private thought anymore? Let me try and remember something. I remember drinking fresh water from a mountain stream and biting on a pine needle and how bitter that was. No one is reacting. Was that a private thought? It had no information in it. That memory is worthless to them – why should they react to that? Let me give them something they want. Oh look, there is a sign over there, its Milan, we are in Milan and there is a bus that says city center. I crane my neck forward looking to what must be West, given the position of the sun. The crowd moves in a rush. Someone drops a coffee cup as they run to catch up. Another steps on it. Okay so they heard that. The crowd turns and heads back towards me. They give me the look of death. Two people intentionally walk into me. Hmmn okay, I guess that’s what Google would call page-ranking. I begin to wonder if I issue a series of these false-thought messages, will the community’s ranking of me drop sufficiently that I will be then capable of having a free-thought since no one will pay any attention to what I say? (Did I read somewhere that Google does not even rank a majority of the internet?) In effect yes, but the thought will not be private, just not treated as credible – it will still be public. Damn. The Lear’s Fool strategy doesn’t quite work and I have already dropped some credibility points on that experiment.
This would be a good place for a new paragraph. If the discovery of any opportunity is immediately communicated to everyone then either we find an opportunity that benefits everyone or communication will crowd out everything less than that. But. Communication is not the same as reaction. If I leave the crowd and discover a way out of here, with sufficient distance between me and the crowd they will be unable to take the opportunity before me. They know what you are trying to do – they will follow you. Only if I am credible and apparently I have just dropped a few points on that front so perhaps I can slip away. Perhaps it would work. More coffee. Four people beside me all put their cups out for more coffee. This is nonsense. The vendor in a single moment fills each one. If I am going to harvest the advantage of lost credibility then others are going to do the same. This room is going to rapidly fill with pointless gibberish. You’re such a pessimist. Okay, wait. There will be those that believe in open-source thought and those that do not. Those that open-source will lose every opportunity because they can’t extract a value for their contribution, in fact they themselves won’t be able to utilize the advantage they have discovered. At least those that wipe themselves out with a credibility-bomb have a better chance of finding a place to stay for the night. I think about a nice spacious hotel room, with fresh crisp clean sheets, an elegant relaxing interior, large bath tub, powerful shower and fragrant lavender scent throughout. The crowd sighs. And its upstairs for just a hundred bucks a night. A small group of people look disapprovingly at me. A few head to the stairs. One spectacled executive comes right up to me and asks if I am some kind of nut. I tell him I am a macadamia. I walk around the edge of the train station towards the exit. I notice a beautiful woman as I exit. She looks at me with a very matter of fact look. I smile until I realize she can read my mind. Awkward. I take the main road away from the station. In my experience these invariably lead to a city-center. Twenty people who still believe in me follow me down the streets. They are mainly young people, some techy-looking guys, a Goth, an up-tight looking couple and a girl in a Laura Ashley dress. Behind them an old woman with one of those two-wheel shopping trollies hobbles along. I feel like I should go back and help her, but if I do then where will we go? Jesus, what a following. Oh, sorry . . . I mean, oh whatever.
For the last nine months I have not written an extended blog entry. Instead, I have posted shorter entries in what I call my “microblog.” In fact, things have gone even further so that now, my Twitters, Flickr postings and Lastfm annotations are automatically gathered into an even shorter form of micro-blogging known as a lifestream. With the gestation period now rapidly coming to an end I feel that I can give birth to a conclusion, and moreover to a comment by way of meta. Narrative is dead. Isative remains.
Life begins with the separation from mother. In that horrendous moment, the other is born. I become we and we become you and me. In becoming the other I become many others. I am the baby, the son, the infant, the grandson, the toddler, the youth, the writer, the teen, the adventurer, the quiet, the brave, the foreigner, the lover, the man etc. Beneath all these labels their remains some common-part of what existed before. It senses the fiction of all signifiers, a semiotic cynic, sloping through doss-houses, for the sake of love and dissolution.
The desire for love drives the search for truth. From tyrants to artists each human longs for acceptance of their true self. In essence; if I could dispense with label and narrative and find my true self, I would know love, and other would disappear within mother. All human activity is equivalent to the scream of the newly born infant. The new does not consent to its separation. Thereafter, everything is valued for its transcendence.
Separated and lost, the self reaches for the paternal narrative. In the beginning there was Chaos and from the void emerged the Word. Art depicts the evolution of the Word and the evolution of art describes the collapse of perspective. Previously, a collection of exhausted hunters, seeking to enlighten and sooth, exchanged at best an oral tradition around an itinerant camp-fire. With the success of agriculture came a societal surplus. Narratives and narrators emerged and the latter increased over time. The single druid became the intelligentsia. From the cauldron of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment emerged the idea of the educated everyman. Through blogs we are all now narrators and Narrative is dead. In literature we can see this evolution from the age of the epic, in which the unlikely is subsumed into the form, through the age of the omniscient narrator to that of the subjective unreliable narrator. James Joyce was close to the end. In Ulysses he took Homer’s epic and substituted the inglorious quotidian. Finally, in Finnegan’s Wake, the hyper-subjective becomes functionally opaque. Since then the blog-train has brought us all to the same terminus. Disembarking. We stand around. It may or may not be Trieste. Bloom eyes the descending petticoats. The station air is filled with the thick soot of subjective rantings, commentaries, analysis, perspectives, debates, overviews, summaries, speculations etc.
Each passenger searches his knickers for awareness. I am breathing. I am thinking. I am seeing. I am sweating. I am afraid. I don’t know where I am. Micro-blogging, a narration of “isness” is born. Plot, arc, structure are no more. We recognize the ignorance of a character in a narrative with no indication of his fate beyond the next paragraph. We pitied them once. Now we live among them. There are no trains departing or arriving at this station anymore. All I can hear is the others, they are, they are, we is. The death of Narrative has dropped us all into a story beyond our control. There are no moo-cows here.