A Dispatch from the Surging Swell

A solitary consciousness, crying out from the surging swell, but using no words: this is the nature of the quiet desperation at the heart of human experience. Does the loneliness sneak up on you? Are you uncomfortably made aware, on the morning commute, of the unavoidable isolation of being conscious? It seems an irony befitting a race that sees its death approaching from earliest youth, like a mountain that anchors every landscape view, no matter where you stand.

But even if we couldn’t see death’s approach, would we do things any differently? It’s a legitimate question. I don’t know that I would watch any less or any more Netflix, or indulge any less or any more in the things I routinely indulge in (hello, Reese’s cups). Would I bother writing? Or is there something about that pale horse and its bony rider that compels me to document these ranging thoughts; to labor away, in the pre-dawn hours, at fiction and at memoiristic meditations on the poetry of Rilke? Probably, on some elemental level, there is something of the dread behind these efforts.

Yesterday I was driving home from my eldest son’s piano lesson, and the sunset caught the trees in such a way that the part of me that responds to art welled up of its own accord (the “of its own accord” part is necessary–it’s how I know I’m in the presence of great art). My first impulse was to take a picture, but I was driving, and I knew that my phone couldn’t capture the true essence of the sunset anyway. So then I thought about how often our first impulse in the presence of beauty is to try and capture it, and then I was hit with the sadness of our inability to do just that. Isn’t there just so much that we wish to do, but we can’t? Beauty can’t be bottled, and there aren’t enough Instagram filters to make an experience communicable to another person. There’s a tremendous sadness in this.

Grad School Hangover

The most acute contractions of our ever-birthing souls are unutterable: inward-wrung and full of psychic ache. Alan, what in heaven is an “ever-birthing soul?” It’s the phrase I concocted yesterday morning to represent the central core of personhood, a terrain beyond vocabulary. I’m leery of this kind of writing—it’s too easy for someone to sound smarter than they are. But this deep questioning of existence was the thing peeping up out of its muddy burrow on a gray Monday—the thing demanding a response. And so I’ll obey, despite the risk of entire paragraphs falling out fluffy, like the sugar-spun drivel of amateur philosophers (I’ve been that guy; I pray I’m not still). Such writing is only tolerable when poeticized by a Rilke or fictionalized by a Kafka. But this is my blog, so I’m taking liberties.

I can’t prove that our souls’ ache has a cause; perhaps it simply is. Like infinitude held hostage. I know this is neither entertaining nor touching, this self-conscious self-examination. And I know the Christian response to the first sentence of this paragraph. But as I did with my thesis, I am approaching this dilemma from a purely human place, free of doctrinal or spiritual association, just to see (just to see!) if these questions that haunt us—these mysteries of existence—can bear the weight of of honest self-directed questioning, without recourse to inherited systems. Drivel, indeed. It’s no fun to read about this stuff, unless it’s cleverly buried in poetry or fiction. This subject is too big for a blog post anyway.

So what’s really going on, I think, is a graduate school hangover. Friday night was Belmont’s December graduation, and I finally secured the master’s degree I’ve always wanted. And while the end of this four-and-a-half year foray into academia brings not only relief but also excitement about new possibilities and free time and choosing my own books to read, there is also something a little like grief. Not a blubbering bereavement, but a quiet, disorienting kind–one that’s left me unsure how to feel for several days now.

It was strange to sit inside that gymnasium at the Curb Event Center, surrounded by celebration, where families cheered as if at a sporting event; seeing all those fresh-faced undergrads brimming with their goals met; and me in the next-to-last row, growing more anxious every moment, tottering between exhilaration and depression (a sensation not unlike puberty). I wonder what the lone Ph. D. candidate behind me was feeling. The experience was so different from when I was twenty-two. The younger me would’ve assumed certain things about what the future held, but the current me holds no such convictions. The current me struggles to see past the thing I’ve lost: my status as a student. I’ve loved being a student.

My thesis advisor told me that writing a thesis changes a person, and that it may be a while before that person realizes just how. As with many things Dr. Paine says, the statement carried a whiff of indisputable wisdom (and he’s advised enough theses to know). I can attest to feeling different, but as to the nature of this difference, I haven’t a clue. Not yet. For now, what I must do is languish in the bone-white comforts of winter; in the straw-colored and misty gray promise of a season of waiting.

21 November 2017 (Leaves in Wind)

Flitting, twirling, and fluttering are words used to describe what leaves do in a strong wind. But not only are these terms limited and worn from overuse, they’re a bit dainty. They could just as well describe a ballerina. By contrast, what happens to leaves in November is more violent: the ones still clinging to their branches undergo quite a thrashing.

Yet any alternative description I can muster is either too wordy or inaccurate: thin, dry wafers oscillating on threads (Wafers? that’s not right; oscillating? too grandiose.); medallions spinning and flashing (too clunky and metallic, though a little poetic); ripples baring their pale undersides at lightning speed (awfully wordy and more suggestive of water). But these are leaves I’m talking about! All my metaphors imply something other than leaves. Do you see the challenge here?

Writing creatively about wind in trees is hard. One could zoom out and take in the larger form, describing how a great tree sways: somnambulantly from side-to-side, as if dragged back-and-forth through water; bowing in obeisance to Aeolus, the keeper of the winds. (Bow is a good way to describe what a bough does in a strong wind—wink, wink.) One could toss about words like bluster and gale. But now we’re talking more about wind and less about leaves.

One could try and capture the sound, likening it to the hiss of a hundred streams, sustained in the undulating branches above. But there’s that recourse to water again. Or maybe a host of small pages flapping in the breeze. But do pages suggest leaves?

The dilemma remains . . .