On dying.

17 July 2011

Cheerful title, I know. I’m writing here because, frankly, I think nobody much reads this old blog anymore, which is fine. Liberating, even. It’s been a rough few weeks-for my friends, and for me. My headspace has not been ideal. One thing that’s happened is that one of my friends who I’ve only gotten to know well this year I’ve been back Charleston had her dad die the other day. Even though I’d never met him, I went with some other friends to the funeral in Atlanta yesterday. Lots of time in the car, lots of time to think. It was also the first funeral I’ve ever been to.

Here’s what I think. As often happens with things that really don’t have much to do with you, or are affecting only at a distance, through those that are close to you, I’ve been considering what I hope people say at my own funeral. Macabre, yes, but totally usual, I think.

Really, more than anything, I want whomever witnesses my life to tell the truth about me. The people who I’d want there will already know. To think about some whitewashed presentation of my life drives me to distraction. I’m not a perfect man; my flaws are very real, and make me who I am. I’m too intense, and I start to throw myself into things (things that are usually people, and often women, if we’re being honest) before I know what’s happening inside my own heart, much less theirs. Once I dive in, my off switch seems to vanish. This is destructive, oftentimes, to everyone involved. As with many things, though, it usually works out in the end. Time passes, hurts ease, and the universe keeps going.

Of course, and here’s the thing, the flip side of that is that I would do anything for my friends, for the people I feel that way about. People who move me become my family (sometimes whether they like it or not, it seems). It’s a small group. I can’t imagine things being any other way. These are people I’ve been cruel to, people I’ve cried out to, people who haven’t left the scene when I lose the plot in my own life, the people who’ve forgiven me when I’ve sinned against them. On occasion they’ve been the reason I lost my way, but that’s not really the point. They’re my rocks, the fixed points that I know, in my bones & in my heart, will never move. They do that for me. How can I do any less for them?

We don’t really say things like that anymore, these days, if we ever did. Maybe we didn’t. But language is powerful, and verbalizing things do make them real.

This is my point: the stories we tell about each other, to each other, and inside our own heads are powerful forces. They can disable or strengthen, terrify or inspire. When stories combine, sometimes there’s fire, sometimes rain, sometimes earthquakes. We’re always changed though. Nobody is isolated, not in life, & not in the way their stories live on after death. Nobody’s story is simple.

We’re all evil, all transcendent, all considerate and hateful. The ones who know that best are the one’s who’ve been there, with you even if they’re not beside you, through it all. They can witness your faults, your triumphs, the great things you did but never told anyone and the terrible decisions you made that everyone who ever met you seems to know about. They can tell your stories, and bring you back from the dead, at least for a little while.

So, what do I want them to say about me? The truth, as far as I can tell. That I make foolish decisions when I’ve had too much wine, that I hurt so much sometimes I want to not feel anything anymore. That I can usually make people laugh some way or another, that I love to tell stories about my friends and about my academic interests that nobody else really cares about. That I correct people too much, that I hate to see something wrong and nobody fixing it. That I work on bicycles and read anything I can get my hands on sometimes. That I like cooking but never do it, that I try to be organized but my living spaces always end up as disaster areas of books & clothes. That David Foster Wallace is the preeminent man of American letters for the last 25 years and that I’d almost rather read a story about spaceships & clones than Infinite Jest again, even though I’ve done it twice already and it’s over 1000 pages long. That I love deeply, that I sometimes try to destroy what I love, that sometimes I try to destroy myself. That I can always be better, and that I’ll never get there. That if I lose the fire in my belly or the chips on my shoulders that I might not know who I am anymore, but that I try to set them aside every day. That I drink deeply, that I’ve jumped in the ocean, that I’ve run a marathon, that I don’t want to be kept on life support, that everybody dies but really, lots of people maybe don’t live at all, that I like terrible food too much, that I want to name my children Gaius & Norman & Isaac & Lorrainne & Franklin, that I want to be a better father to them than mine was to me but I get terrified that I’ll fail, that I struggle with my roots and hate that I do so, that I’m a controlled explosion that sometimes burns down my walls, that I love coffee too much, that I think God is everywhere but I despair of ever seeing him, that language is power but some of the things that matter most you can’t put into words, like a lover’s neckline or a child’s laughter or the best kiss you’ve ever had that you couldn’t forget if you tried, that I’m more than the sum of my parts, that I am the universe and it’s all in my head. That I burn.

Daily Coffee

18 May 2010

The first cup of coffee I drink, no matter the time or the place, holds an almost totemic pleasure for me.

Infinite Jest

19 April 2009

‘We are all dying to give ourselves away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately–the object seemed incidental to this will to give one-self away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into. Flight from exactly what?’ – David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, pg 900.

I read this sentence the other day, sitting in Hampton Park near my new domicile. I underlined carefully, penciling in the small comment ‘Perhaps the best sentence I’ve ever read.’ Maybe. Maybe not. But I think it’s pretty far up there, and I’ve read quite a few sentences in my time. (Quite a few of the most beautiful phrases I’ve ever seen, by the way, appear in Love in the Time of Cholera. It made me want to learn Spanish, if for no other reason than to read it in the original.)  It’s not just the sentence though; what gets me is the literary space in which it is found, a novel that is quite long, like a brick more than a book. Weird, offbeat, wildly plunging into perhaps the most piercing meditation on addiction and the American personality than any other text I’ve encountered. By turns shocking and humorously absurd, I’ve laughed more than once, I’ve identified, I’ve been moved. Reading, I realize that I haven’t felt like this about a book in quite a while, like the author was actually talking to me, only the clarity was greater than as if we were having a conversation, with every word more carefully chosen and placed just so to generate a particular effect. No ambiguity except what is in my own head, no tone of voice, no quizzical looks at a smirk or a an errant tear telling me ‘No, that’s not what I meant at all!’ Instead, there is the simple clarity of the created meaning. the internal evocation of emotion and feeling.

One reason I feel so attached, so appreciative of Wallace’s work, is that I see my own ideas about America, about coming of age in an age that sometimes feels more like a fictional version of what a writer of 10 years ago would create than the actual present, refracted in prose. The curse of the intellectual, as he understands it (and I agree) is that everything, from other people, to the world to the dynamic of the three friend across the table from my in this coffee shop, is somehow a puzzle, a problem to be figured. Nothing simply is, not to this certain mind. For everything there is a reason, from the first gesture made on waking to the way the shower curtain is pulled tight while cleaning up for bed. And this makes any sense of failure nearly untenable, because to someone who is always questioning, who is always analyzing, there is nothing more puzzling, but also nothing more addictive, than the self. Within Infinite Jest, I can see his mind trying to work through these problems, from that of substance abuse, to the obsessiveness of competitive athletics to the bizarre dynamics of every family. More importantly, he addresses the need to cease analyzing, to forget to question, to simply believe, or be, or exist, solely in the present. And in those moments, the pieces, the puzzle, stops being a puzzle and becomes a picture, not to be picked apart, but to be taken in. Basically, you should read this book. Like, soon.

motes in the eye

26 February 2009

I’ve been reading a great deal of theology lately, especially process theology and panentheism. Though I don’t really understand all of the details, I find it fascinating. One of the interesting assumptions, especially in panentheism, is that what we conceive of as God is at once coterminus with the universe, but also something greater. This means that God isn’t separate, outside, and substantially different from existence; s/he/it doesn’t exist apart from humanity (or anything else) in an unchanging and unalterable way. Neither, though, is God the god of pantheism, exactly consisting of everything in the universe and not extending beyond it.

Panentheism instead holds that the universe is indeed God, but that God is something more than the universe. In other words, for a panentheist, God would certainly be found in the trees, rainfall and humanity. All of these things, though, do not limit the boundary of God; they, taken together, form a God that is greater than nature alone. The clearest analogy for me is the human body. In its most elemental, we are nothing but a collection of carbon, various minerals, etc. Different types of cells have structured themselves, over time, to form muscles, fat, hair and skin, teeth and toenails. Some of them have formed our brain. What is the brain, physically, but soft tissue? Of course, it’s so much more. It is the seat of consciousness and reason, of love and belief, of humanity. Check out these images of neurons in the brain and the way they connect:

Now keep that in mind, and consider the superstructure of the universe. When I was a bit younger, I was really into astronomy (ok, I’m still really into astronomy). The first time I saw pictures of the cosmos, of the universe, I was amazed. I’m not talking about the solar system, or even the galaxy. No, these pictures are of the Universe, capital U, everything that is actually in existence. Theoretically, this is what all of existence looks like, if you took a slice of it and zoomed really, really far out:

universe-poster2

I found this somewhat extraordinary the first time I looked at these pictures side by side. To see that the universe, that collections of stars, galaxies and galaxy filaments mirror the structure of the brain, is astounding

In light of my growing belief in God as the universe, but so much more, this has some interesting implications. I have no idea how this set up actually functions, what role we play in constituting God and how everything relates. I don’t know whether I actually think that the structure of the universe serves as a network of neurons for the consciousness of what I call God, the consciuosness that is aware of itself, in the way that we are aware of our bodies and neurons. But what an exciting possibility, that our very bodies and consciousneses form an integral part of some vast whole, and that whole is the structure of the mind of God! So we are not, in fact, tiny bits of dust in God’s eye (and yes, I know the original quote isn’t about that), but that we are in fact the components that constitute something so much greater than ourselves. Every one is integral, even if we don’t realize it, because we all, every day, with every decision and with every thought, affect God.

This might sound a bit weird, and it assuredly is, but like I’ve said, I think about this kind of thing quite a bit. So here you have my thoughts.

“Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained.

Split a piece of wood; I am there.

Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” – The Gospel of Thomas

ps, I couldn’t get the stupid picture to be where it’s supposed to be without putting it in twice. Sorry!

New Year’s Resolutions

16 January 2009

I read an article the other day about new year’s resolutions, and how people don’t keep them. Turns out that one of the keys to actually changing something about yourself is to put it all out in the open, to let people know the things that you want to do. That way, the public shame of failure, and of being a hypocrite in somebody else’s eyes, is a pretty powerful motivator. In keeping with that, I’m going to throw up a few things that I’d like to do in 2009. I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, in fact I think they’re a bit silly, but then I thought, hey, why not? There’s a few things I’d like to get together, a few changes of habit I’d like to get in to. So, at the risk of oversharing, here area few of my new year’s resolutions:

1. Pray/meditate more. This, for me, will probably be one of the most difficult to do, because it is not even an action to take, a thing to do, but rather finding the committment to not-do on a regular basis. I have trouble setting aside time for myself to simply be, to focus on the light of a candle or the breathe in my chest, and to become receptive; I’d often prefer to read about religion, to learn about God, rather than experience God. I have trouble being comfortable with this, with opening myself up, but I’m beginning to believe that it may not be that it isn’t there, but that I’m just not listening hard enough. I need to do this at least twice a week, to form a habit; I’d also love to do a weekend retreat at Mepkin Abbey in Monck’s Corner sometime soon, to evade distractions and center myself for the coming year.  

2. Get healthy. The perennial favorite of new year’s resoluters everywhere, the lose weight-get buff-to pick up more chicks/dudes vow that comes around every January. I don’t really feel like I need to lose weight, I’m just not as healthy as I should be. Since my freshman year of college, I exercised fairly regularly, until my senior year. Then my senior thesis and various issues completely derailed my schedule, and by the fall after graduation I realized that I was horribly out of shape. Happily, I’m already turning this around. My new roommate is a workout fiend, so we’ve been running together around the penninsula. Plus, she’s a girl, and I can’t let a girl be in better shape than me, right? 

3. Talk to my father. I don’ t really speak with my dad, no one of my family is very close to him. He, quite frankly, wasn’t around much growing up, and had a substance abuse problem with alcohol that he would (and still has not, to my knowledge) admitted. I’ve never hated him, except for a few moments of irrational pain, but I saw it as a chapter in my life that had closed. I realize more and more that it probably isn’t, and I’ve begun dealing, in some very real ways, with the impact of his absence on my attitudes and on my life. (I told you to watch out for overshare!) I think that I forgave him some time ago in my heart, but I don’t know if it’s real until I tell him that, and why I felt that I needed to do so. I missed him for so long growing up, but never realized it until now, when I don’t miss him much at all, but feel the need to set things right. He’s getting old, and I’m 23. 

4. Write more. I’ve never had trouble writing, at least when the topic at hand is some form of analysis or critique or some hopefully pithy comment on someone else’s words. Putting my own words on a page, electronic or paper, has always been more difficult. I’m usually only write when compelled by pain, or by wonder, or by the need to get the words out and force them into someone’s skull by sheer velocity of phrasing. That has it’s place, but is not conducive, to put it midly, to any sort of regular composition. Trying to puzzle out how to channel that overflowing fountain into some sort of useful flow, or how to prime the pump when it seems dry, will be diffucult but rewarding. I think. 

I think that’s about enough. I could go on, but those are some of the ones that I’m really serious about. Plenty of room left for neuroses and complexes and confusions, no doubt. 2009 is going to be a good one, full of change and possibility, I can feel it. And if it turns out not to be, just remind me of this blog post, and tell me to go write something.

laundry day.

9 January 2009

I’ve a confession to make: I have a tortured relationship with laundromats. Now this may sound odd to those of you who have never had to use a laundromat’s services, either in childhood or that bizarre world called college. I, however, have a long history, though an intermittent one, with these venerable institutions. When I was but a wee lad, I would often accompany my harried mother to do our laundry (A washer and dryer is one of those things that perhaps people don’t appreciate unless you’ve gone without one for some time). This laundromat is vivid in my mind, behind the ‘Mother Goose’ children’s nursery on Highway 441 on the way to my grandparent’s house, next to the Pizza Hut. The building was, in its former glory as a bar, where my parents met. Somewhat surreal, but that is the cheif fact I associate with the place, the way it looked with a bar, my mother 20 years old getting hit on by my father. Although, knowing my mother, she probably was the one hitting on him. 

So this laundromat was like any other laundromat, smelling of lint and heated clothes, with the drone of a television that no one could change the channel of, soda machines and arcade games all crammed together. I remember it being disorderly and dirty. I loathed it, everything about it. There wasn’t any order, no system, lint everywhere, people’s clothes, even their underclothes, spread about for all to see. I, being strangely modest about such things, was mortified. Coupled with the interminable time it took to do an entire family’s laundry, I didn’t enjoy the place. Especially since we never had quarters for me to play Galaga or Pac Man, and even if we did, I always died by level two (especially on Pac Man).

At the same time, I remember thinking that it was stupid to have such feelings about a laundromat; after all, where else are these people supposed to do their laundry? Now, unsurprisingly, time goes a bit more quickly, since I take a book or two and my mind is taken away. But I still have to fight down these feelings of unease with people who would do laundry in public, who would need to use a laundromat. I’m uncomfortable realizing that I judge people on nothing more than their need for clean laundry, on the fact that they don’t own a washer or dryer. Perhaps it’s because of my childhood associations of having little to no money, that I don’t like being reminded that I know what it feels like to watch your mother pawn her wedding ring for money as you sit in the car, that most of your father’s friends always seem to be drinking and sloppy, just like all the people at the laundromat are messy and loud and immodest. Maybe it’s that.

It’s a bit different now, though. Going to the college laundromat down the street from my company subsidized housing, I sit and read, and watch over the pages of my book. I see people, and I wonder about their stories, this one a medical student, that one an immigrant business owner perhaps, speaking Farsi into his cellphone. Those ones sorority sisters, their Greek letters across the rear of their velvet track pants. Old men that make their way to the corner to wash their sheets, and their old white faded shirts and dickies work pants, all of us mingle together, the unwashed and the privileged, all reduced to watching the spinning clothes, on every side. But in our lives of sequestration, it is somehow reassuring to know that we all have to see each other every now and then. And when I see that little girl unsteadily making her way around the washing machines and dryers, helping her father one article of clothing at a time, I wonder what she’ll remember of the laundromat, and hope that it’s a warm glowing feeling, and perhaps that the strange, quiet man in a corner smiled at her over the top of his book and that she smiled back. Probably not, but it makes me smile to ponder it.

pride and prejudice

28 December 2008

So I’m rereading Pride and Prejudice, and I just wanted to share with all of you that it’s one of my favority books. I find this amusing, as no doubt will some of you, considering that I spend the majority of my time reading thinly disguised tripe about space wars and colonizing other planets (Although some of it is actually pretty fantastic and not at all lame, folks tend to turn up their nose at books involving spaceships….snobs 🙂 ) And I must confess that I first saw the film Pride and Prejudice, you know, the one with Kiera Knightley as Lizzy Bennett. I guess it did it’s job though, drawing me in and then getting me to read the book  behind the movie magic. When I did, I was pleasantly a bit surprised. Like several other books I’ve read since becoming older that I had expected to be stuffy and quite a bit boring, it was a page turner (Other books in this category include Edgar Huntly, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Coquette, and A Room with a View). I chuckled frequently, I recognized the Janes and Lizzys and Bingleys and Mr Collins in my own life. I told Liz that she was an idiot, that Wickham was a knave who deserved to be duelled and defeated by Mr Darcy, and that Mary and Mr Collins belonged together, without question, even though she’s only like 15 or some such. Both so boring. Lord. 

I was, perhaps unsurprisingly, most intruiged by Mr Darcy. When he declares his love for Elizabeth, insisting that he cannot fight his feelings any longer, I couldn’t help but empathize. Admitting love, I think , at least for Mr Darcy and perhaps myself, is a difficult thing. It feels like a weakness, even though of course it is not. It feels like an admission of need, which is exactly what it is, but that feels so alien that it can be hard to fathom. Those of us who live so much in our own head can find it difficult to admit that we need anything that we ourselves cannot supply. 

This is the height of stupidity, but it so often seems the correct action. So I think it’s important to admit that we, especially I, need things. I need God, even if I can only seen it in the random flashes of rain on the pavement or the way a large man sings opera on the streets of Charleston or the way the sunlight turns the sky the color of orange peels. I need friends and family, even though I’m not the best at being either and we sometimes antagonize each other over every single thing in the world. I need love, because even though I might become wildly successfuly and be respected the world over and rich beyond my dreams, it won’t particularly matter if there’s no one to share it with. I find it ironic that it wasn’t until my early twenties and a college education that I realized that. So bravo Mr Darcy, keep plugging away, even though you seem to haven’t the faintest idea what you’re doing most of the time. The truth will out, and when the truth is love, nothing can end too badly. 

I would hope, anyways. 🙂