The Worst Thing

When I was back there in the hole under my parents’ house, I didn’t just sit around on my butt.  milkywayWell, I did sit around on my butt, but I did so while reading a great deal.  I couldn’t say I had learned a whole lot in college—excepting one class—the History of Civilization (sic)—that went on for two years, but I had managed to compile a pretty decent list of must-do reading.  They had assigned us a bit of Nietzsche, for example, though from that wretched “Thus Spake…” but enough to wet my whistle, so I read more of him. 

And I continued existentialism with background reading in Kierkegaard, and Heidegger’s Being and Time, and on phenomenology in general, especially Merleau Ponti.  And, of course, more and more Sartre.  I am probably one of the few people in the world who read Being and Nothing “just for fun.”  Sartre says that the self arises from or rather is “anxiety.”  I sat around worrying about whether I was authentic or not, and concluded I probably wasn’t or even if I were, I wouldn’t know it.

But Sartre, along with Camus, gave me a ready supply of rationalizations for my depression.  Now, I was not fucked up precisely.  Well, I was fucked up precisely, but that was because the world in general was fucked up. Not the world precisely, but the very nature of being qua being and as such.  So during my first couple of years in college Camus afforded me a ready formulation for my state with his claim that the first and most important philosophical question—the asking of and by which one might claim to be a philosopher, however ephemerally—was whether or not to cap yourself. 

People would ask me how I was doing and I would say, “I feel like fucking killing myself today.”  I said it just like that too, flat out.  No wonder I was not Joe-popular, and after a while 98% of the people around stopped asking me how I was doing, and I found myself relating with the 2% that like myself, deep down, were also thinking about killing themselves.  This was not a happy group and being able to relate only to people who were thinking about killing themselves tended to reinforce my perception that existence was pretty shitty. 

Had I been born in another time I might have made a pretty good monk.  I could have gone around reminding people that they could die at any second and that the yearnings of the flesh were the path to nothingness in an official capacity and they would have had to listen to me whether they wanted to or not.  As Saint Augustine said, something like, the yearnings of the flesh lead us “to lick after shadows.”  And Buddha said, the worst thing that can happen to a human being is to be born.  

But since I don’t believe in reincarnation, I would have to say that it’s not the worst thing; it’s the only fucking thing.

The Void

During those seven years that I lived in the hole under my parents’ house, I had three sort of metaphors for my existence.  First, I called myself a “walking abortion.”  Maybe I felt, having been graduated from college and then having a “nervous breakdown” that the arch of my life had been aborted.  Like sort of when they shot up a rocket and it starts to go crazy and they abort it.  Or maybe like I had been aborted, thrown into a trashcan, not yet dead and somehow I had crawled vortexout and lived.  Which may have come from the sense that I wasn’t really wanted.

But I also thought of myself as a rocket that had not been aborted.  I had been launched off, out of control, and souring into the void.  The void is a particular place.  You can visit it though why the hell anybody would want to go there, I don’t know.  Artaud went there and did some good writing about the void—especially when he was in the lunatic asylum.  The void is beyond emptiness; rather it is the perpetual ache of emptiness or emptiness aware of itself as such.  The void is like a vortex that draws you more and more deeply in.  Or maybe like Nietzsche said, when you stare into the abyss, it stares into you.  But the void is hard to put into words.

I met a cook who had been raised in South Carolina and had done some heavy duty drugs in the 60s.  We were talking about something, and she said, “You know about the void?”  Which she said—“void”—dragging it out with a soft southern drawl.  Sure, I said.  She had been to the void too.  Whenever we bumped into each other, we asked how the “void” was that day because once you step into the void you can’t ever get rid of it completely.

Artaud said, “Where there is a stink of shit there is a smell of being.”  My kind of guy.

But he’s right of course.  Because my other metaphor was that I was a walking “biochemical experiment.”  The more I read about brain science and the more drugs I took of both the under and over kind, the more I felt I was a body and no more than that at all.  Just a bunch of biochemicals, an interweaving of genetics, aging, and whatever the hell was going on in the immediate environment.  If I wasn’t dead yet or hadn’t committed suicide, that had nothing to do with me—my body just wanted to live was all, and I was along for the ride.

So one day you feel better and you want to take credit for that, like you had done something to make yourself feel better, so you think maybe it was a movie you saw or doing yoga or something, and you try to repeat it but nothing happens.  Because what you felt had nothing at all to do with the puny conscious mind but was he result of some weird-assed shift in your biochemical being—some sort of interconnection between the cells of the brain and the particular light of the sun, on that particular evening, as it arrived at a precise and unrepeatable angle.

Turkey

 So while I was working on Henry James I bumped into a woman who had gone to my college.  I said, hey aren’t you…and then I couldn’t remember her last name, but that didn’t make any difference because in the four or five year interim she had married and had a child and so her last name was different.  I don’t think I had said even two words to her at college.  She was not in my turkeycrowd, though I didn’t have a crowd exactly.  She had been heavy duty into the sorority-fraternity scene that dominated the campus, and she was very popular and home coming queen material.  I say that because she was like the runner-up to the home coming queen one year or something like that.

We hung out some and had coffee and I was a year or so ahead of her with the TA gig and showed her the ropes.  One day, she asked me who I thought she had been back in college and I said, I really didn’t know though I thought she had been part of the fraternity and sorority crowd.  And then she asked me who I thought I had been, and I said, a hippy, I guess.  And she said, crap, because she was pretty direct.  I had been, she said, a “turkey.”  

Turkey was a sort of pre-cursor term for nerd.  It meant I was a “gobbler,” or studying kind of person, and as usual the study type person, the person who goes to college to learn something, is cast in the negative maybe because they make it rough for the people who don’t study.  I had to allow though that she was right.  The beard and long hair hadn’t fooled anybody. I mean Rasputin had a beard and long hair and he wasn’t a hippy.  I wasn’t either though I didn’t think I was a turkey as much as I was fucking troubled.

We struck up a sort of friendship.  A couple of times she called me, and nobody called me, and I would come up from the basement and she would read something and say, Now, guess who wrote that.  And I would say Henry James since that was who it was and you knew it was Henry James even if you hadn’t read it before.  We would chat a bit and I began to figure that a person, even though she was a sorority person and her husband was making good money, who would call a guy living in the basement of his parents’ house to cheer him up a bit couldn’t be all bad.  So once I even called her and I don’t call anybody, unless my battery is dead or something like that, and got her husband, who didn’t seem too friendly, and read a bit to her:

 “The dream of acquisition at Weatherend would have had to be wild indeed, and John Marcher found himself, among such suggestions, disconcerted almost equally by the presence of those who knew too much and by that of those who knew nothing. The great rooms caused so much poetry and history to press upon him that he needed some straying apart to feel in a proper relation with them, though this impulse was not, as happened, like the gloating of some of his companions, to be compared to the movements of a dog sniffing a cupboard. It had an issue promptly enough in a direction that was not to have been calculated.”

Henry James, she said laughing.  Now how did you know that?  I said.

Hecuba

Hamlet says, “For Hecuba!/ What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,/
That he should weep for her?”  That’s a good question. I have asked it in different ways in different contexts.  What, for example, was Henry James to me or me to Henry James that I should have narcissusspent so much time reading and trying to make sense of his stuff?  But nothing at all but contingency.  A desire to understand what I hadn’t understood, a teacher who liked what I wrote, being unemployed and having the time to write it. Or was there some elective affinity.

 But that’s what I wrote my Master’s Dissertation on.  Of course I had to do it the hard way and wrote about a hundred and 120 pages of ill-organized philosophical rumination and turned that in and the Professor, god bless his heart, just said, go to the library, check out a dissertation, and see how they organize these things.  So I did that and found that usually people would write a chapter on this novel and a chapter on that novel and so forth with an introduction and conclusion.  I was a bit relieved; I was making it out to be harder than it was, and so threw away my 120 pages and started over.

 But what was I doing with James and his hyper-refined, super-subtle fry, as he called them.  Suffocating and suffocating people.  I got the feeling that if one of them could just curse, or yell fuck, or hit somebody, or maybe even a wall or just plain fart or have an attack of gas that James’ whole fucking novelistic universe would deflate like a balloon.  But maybe that was the point and one not unrelated to myself, his people lacked bodies, horribly repressed one might say, but more epistemologically to be one of his detached observers one has got to pretend one is not there and has no influence on what one is seeing.

So the hero of the Ambassadors is shocked to find his nephew, I believe it was, and this super-suble French woman are having an actual physical liaison.  It’s not that he is horrified by that but that his actual being there himself, in the flesh, may have caused them to change their movements, to go out of town, as it were to get it on.  His just being there got in the way, and had they really known him, they would not have hidden, but lacking any sense of his influence on people, he didn’t know how his “innocence” would affect them or, to add insult to injury, even that they saw him as innocent and tiptoed around trying to protect him from himself.

So maybe that’s the elective affinity since I too have always had trouble understanding my influence, if any, upon other people.  Maybe that’s why I like to make people laugh because when they laugh I do know, but other than that I mostly don’t and never have, mostly because I didn’t have room just to be or maybe became I pretended not to be, like a fly on the wall, to stay out of range of the yelling and screaming and general psycho-violence of the family.  Sometimes when the mood really comes over me, I will tiptoe around my own house because I am afraid the neighbors will hear and know I am there.

When you build a fortress around yourself sometimes you can’t see over the walls.

Welfare State

In Charleston, we had a bit of talk with our server person.  Turns out she had been in teacher somewhere in Charleston.  She made 22 k to start and after four years of teaching was way up to 24k, and she had a child too.  So she quit teaching because she could make more money as a server person.

aircrThat wasn’t the only reason she quit.  The whole system was horribly backwards.  For example, they didn’t have time to teach all of history so they decided just to drop all the stuff about pre-history so as to avoid any talk of cave men and monkeys.  Also they mixed the special ed kids with learning and emotional problems in with the regular kids and she had no special support.  Sometimes, she said, they would just sit there and cuss her out.  And she concluded, they lived in a “welfare state.”

That was a funny use, I thought, of the term “welfare state.”  Me, I think the US could use more of a welfare state, but not one as she described it, where people live for a generation and more on welfare, get no education, have no prospects and just repeat the cycle.  In Swainsboro, Georgia, the sister of our black friend drove us through their “projects.”  Little brick houses all in a row, people sitting out on their porches, in the heat, infested with drugs, I was told, and drug dealers.  People living in narcoticized poverty and one hundred percent black.

Up in Carolina with my relatives and down in Georgia with our black friend, people talked about jobs, needing them, getting them, moving here and there to get them, and holding onto them.  People moving in with other family while looking for one, and moving out when they found one, and back again when they lost it.  Our black friend’s sister, Paula, has a son who had ambition and joined the army and served in Iraq and came back and couldn’t find work in Swainsboro.  So now he has gone to Florida where Paula’s new husband who has retired and has 13 of his own kids has a house so he can find work.

This is family values territory, and maybe there’s a reason for it.  Because when push comes to shove, all you have is family.  These are the people who might put you up in bad times, or loan you a car, or give you an old one, and when you are in deep trouble give a you a little money, and more important than that really, these are the people you can talk to, who know you and might have a little interest in you, and who you are and what you did that day.

Because nobody else in Swainsboro Georgia could give a flying fuck.

The Hole

Some confusion surrounded the digging of the hole and where the memorial service should be held.  At least I was confused. But things get done.  Maxi Hunter’s son ventured out in the heat holewith a posthole digger and chopped out of the hard red clay a hole about three feet across all ways and maybe a bit more than that down.  Very sufficient for the old man’s box.  A bit of outdoor carpet covered the mound of excavated dirt and a doormat was placed to the side of the hole to protect the knees of the person who put the box into the hole. 

People had spoken of having the memorial service hole-side ; but wiser heads prevailed and the service was done in the chapel of the little church.  Thank goodness, for given the length of the service, one justified by the weight of the occasion and dictated by the rules of the ritual, we all would have completely wilted away, most especially the Reverend who upon our meeting apologized for his inclination towards prespiring.

The chapel of the tiny church build in the late 1800s was overall as I remembered it, though the pews had been replaced with thicker, stronger ones, the floor had been carpeted, and up front, looking completely and metallically out of place were some stereo speakers.  I was happy to see that the bulletin boards announcing the readings and songs for a particular Sunday service had not changed at all.  Just boards with wooden slots in which one might slip plastic letters and numbers, like the way they used to announce movies though much smaller.  The Reverend had asked the congregation about updating those, but was told not to touch them.  I always as a kid looked at them first to see what songs were up for the day, my favorites being “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Rock of Ages.”

After the service proper and the reception organized by the Ladies of the Church the many Tingles and ken present gathered hole-side for some very brief words by the good Reverend, who had previously been an insurance salesman.  Those done, I was prompted by a nod from the Reverend to announce that was all unless people wanted to dare sun stroke.  As the others drifted off, my brother and I lingered by the hole and the box of ashes sitting atop a bit of furniture, an end-table perhaps.  My brother said he wanted to put the old man in the hole as I had expected he might, and so he went off and fetched a shovel from the parsonage.

 My brother knelt on the doormat and settled the box firmly in place, and then we took turns, my brother, his son, another nephew, and me, shoveling the earth back into the hole.  Mostly the youngest, my brother’s son, did it.  My one shovel full was purely symbolic.

Doubly Sad

Wordsworth said something about poetry being the expression of emotion recollected in tranquility.  That may explain why I am no good at poetry since I am never tranquil.  But the hourglassnotion of recollection does suggest some distance in time between the emotion and its expression.  I don’t think I have that recollected distance yet between the placement of my father’s ashes and the events surrounding it and my present moment still in Charleston sufficient to offer a crafted expression of emotion.

 Still as I drove away a few days ago from the Atlanta airport and off into the Georgia country side I can say I felt a double sadness—like 2 rivers perhaps as they merged into one. Or perhaps two sides to the same coin.  First, at sixty, I felt the passage of the years, the 50 that separate me from my first 10 childhood years growing up in the middle of nowhere in the South Carolina country side.  The nature of my errand itself, with my father’s ashes bouncing around in the trunk, was guaranteed to awaken intimations of mortality. 

Second was the sense registered in the countryside itself of the passing of years.  The place where I grew up, excepting of course the dirt, the trees, and the birds, has gone.  Even in the 10 years since my last visit much more of what I knew has gone missing.  Mr. Byrd’s country store was at least visible beneath a mound of brush, but now the store and Mr. Byrd’s house as well as the old and gnarly oak, upon which I ruminated one day as a child, are just not there having been replaced by a storage area for large tanker trucks.

Other great houses that once stood by the road have also disappeared.  Miss Lizzie and Bell’s house was torn down.  The community center, where I had my fierce earache, looks clearly abandoned and falling into disrepair.  The nurse, whom I visited on my last trip and who administered by first ever enema, now lies in the cemetery of the ARP church.  Miss Cannon, who said I might benefit from piano lessons, is also gone.  The sense of time was accentuated too by my meeting however briefly two people who were childhood friends. 

One, who collected far more bottles from the roadside than I ever did, now owns an Ace Hardware store and has two sons.  Another with whom I rode the bus and who had terrible baby teeth is now a handsome woman with an unblemished smile.  When I noticed she had left the “reception” following the service, I ran out to her car as she and her husband were departing to say how good it had been to see her however briefly.  I think I was a bit inarticulate and that was the only moment I felt “choked up.”

Part of getting old I suspect must involve in varying degrees of intensity a constant grieving.

Plugged Up

I cannot speak for the locals but the southern diet does not appear particularly suited to the promotion of regularity.  I won’t say they do not recognize the existence of green foods but lettuce seems hard to come by.  My first southern meal, for example, down in Georgia consisted of a pork chop, rice and gravy, macaroni and cheese, and a little bowl of turnip greens.  The greens were quite tasty their having been cooked mostly in fat; the one other green food, beans, came sprinkled liberally with bits of bacon.  For desert I had a piece of fried chicken followed by another order of macaroni and cheese.

Breakfasts consist generally of eggs, plus grits sometimes with cheese, plus some meat, bacon or sausage, with biscuits sometimes with gravy, sometimes not.  Indeed, your southerner appears an aggressive meat eater.  A poster for sale read, “There is a place for all God’s creatures great and small—right beside the rice and gravy.”  If theology can be injected into something southerners will do it; the same can of course be said of vegetarians, though they are perhaps more spiritual and less scripturally oriented.

 This diet had the effect of stopping me up.  Though I must say the heat probably had something too to do with this.  One can say properly that the sun “beats down”.  Out walking I have sweated clean through my under garment. I am inclined genetically to be a fierce sweater being of Anglo Saxon extraction and fair skinned.  I did not during the first days properly lubricate.  I cannot, without becoming indelicate, go into detail on this point, but once in an effort to relieve myself of my stoppage, I remembered, this is how Elvis died, and so kept myself from blacking out from my exertions.

 Heat contributed in additional ways.  My bowels tend to be excited by exercise and in this heat exercise is impossible and perhaps unnatural.  The very occasional jogger must be masochistic and were he to jog in the more rural areas he is asking to be taunted or run over.  But I am happy to report that in the more cosmopolitan Charleston, I located a salad, strewn with strips of an excellent fried chicken and that, along with a brisk walk in the cooler evening, has restored me to my natural balance. 

Box

I became obsessed with the possibility that I would not be able to get the old man’s remains boxthrough airport security.  The box they put him in was very heavy and I had been told that sometimes they put the ashes in a metal box and put that in the wooden box and if there was a metal box in the wooden box that security might think I was carrying a bomb.  That freaked me out.  Showing up at the memorial service without the remains of the man of the hour struck me as being like showing up at a wedding without the bride or groom.

So the next time I was flying somewhere I asked airport security about the matter.  And the IQ-less young man there said he could not guarantee that they would go through the security check.  I said I had heard that you could put a quarter under the box and if you could see the quarter with the machine then it would go through.  The IQ-loess young man looked stern and said I was not supposed to know that.

This was not reassuring.  So I phoned the mortuary and they referred me to the crematorium; everybody specializes these days.  They assured me the box was just wood with ashes in it.  But still I didn’t trust anybody by this point.  We had my wife’s father’s ashes too, in a smaller box; and it weighed half of what my father’s box weighed and they were about the same height and weight at the point of expiration.  How could that be.  While talking with the crematorium people, I had my father’s box in my lap and turning it over happened to notice four screws.

 If you want something done right, you have got to do it yourself.  So I unscrewed the screws and took out my father’s ashes that were contained in heavy plastic.  The ashes looked very much like ashes; and I was reassured to see no metal in the box.  But sure enough at the airport, they pulled aside the suitcase with the old man in it and asked me what was in there.  I said it was my father’s ashes and what was the matter and they said they couldn’t see through it.  I said there was no metal in it.

A security guy walked over and took the bag to another security machine.  I saw him slip a quarter under the box which he had taken out of the bag and put in through the machine, and then he put it back in the bag and said I could take it with me.  Thank God.  The problem all along had not been metal, but the simple density of human ashes.

Madison Georgia

As I have said more dead Tingles reside in Georgia than living.  But the living population just increased by 1 since my arrival in Atlanta yesterday.  We, my wife and I—she is a Tingle neither by blood—thank god—or by name—are taking my father’s ashes to be deposited in the grave yard of the Ora ARP church in South Carolina.

ant lionThe old man didn’t talk much about anything, but when he did talk he tended to tell incoherent stories about his childhood.  In a futile attempt to bond with him, I sent him a tape recorder and asked him to talk some of his stories into the machine.  But even on tape they were mostly incoherent hopping from one name or place to another and sliding up and down in time.  But from the tapes clearly life for the old man and his family had not been easy in Georgia.

After the War—the one and only—the Tingles had a considerable establishment near Blount Georgia on the way down to Macon.  Indeed they had a road named after them.  The road now is just red dirt heading into the piney woods.  Back in the woods if you dare go in with all the ticks seven smokestacks can be located, all that’s left of the old place, that served in the late 19th century as home and, if rumors are true, the site for a country store.

But over the years, the law of primogenitor having been set aside,  the family land was progressively divided among the males until by the time my Grandfather came along there wasn’t any left to go around. Consequently, Grandfather Tingle rented land and a house.  I don’t know that he was a sharecropper or if he hired himself out.  But they moved around a lot; one of the places they lived, near Indian Springs, is now under water.  At another, the old man recollects, to keep the rain, wind and cold out, they had to plaster the walls with newspaper stuck up with a mix of flour and water.  One of the places they lived, though, the Asbery House, was preserved, picked up, and moved to a park near Atlanta.  I walked through that house and it was funny to see it just as my father had described.

I don’t know why but at one point they decided go to live in South Carolina after having lived in and around Blount and Woodville Georgia for over a 100 years.  By that time, Grandpa Tingle had acquired a mobile saw mill. Maybe he just liked the stands of pine he saw in SC.  He would go up to the owner of the pines and say he would cut them down and sell them for such and such a percentage, and if the owner was amenable he would do it. 

 Grandpa must have made some money from saw milling because he was able to buy a  few acres. He threw up a house fast, but out of green, uncured wood, so that when the wood did dry out cracks and gaps appeared in the walls and flooring, the latter being particularly useful for cleaning since all you had to do was to sweep the dirt and dust into one of the cracks where over the years it piled up into a fine whitish powder. Little bugs lived in that powder.  They made little holes like a volcano crater or vortex and other bugs would come along and slide down the sides and the little bug would be waiting right down at the bottom to eat them up. Folks in Georgia call them “ant lions,” though I don’t know if that is what they are called in SC in the dust under the crumbling remains of Grandpa’s house.