My Exposed Root

Coming of age in northwest Tennessee means I will always have a root exposed to those mown cornfields along Highway 22, as you approach Reelfoot Lake—a root sensitive to the bite of a January ice storm, and to the yellowed-out severity of a meager existence among the bluffs (an existence I only imagined, yet it seemed ripe material for stories), overrun with the ghosts of Chickasaw Indians; a root sensitive to endless backroad roaming, often under cover of night, when the mystery was thickest—when the taste in our mouths and the fire in our brains urged us into country cemeteries in hopes of communing with the dead (which we almost convinced ourselves happened); a root bare, like the bald knobs of cypresses, where unspeakable ice sculptures materialize from the winds whipping off the lake; a root exposed to the midnight sounds of unseen, distant animals—coyote laughter drifting across bean fields and who-knows-what splashing in black water.

I cannot deny the imprint of those experiences, coming, as they did, when my young adulthood was forming. There’s a voice in the rural solitudes of northwest Tennessee that speaks only to me, and I don’t need to be there to hear it.

In the Mall, I Was . . . in the Mall

As a halfway educated man, I wonder why I like hanging out in shopping malls. There’s an understood mandate among we liberal arts types to despise such centers of consumerism, with their calculated storefront designs and cleverly displayed merchandise; and the hardly hidden motive for profit, which is one small, capitalist step away from greedy excess. In other words, the mall is a two-storied, soulless gallery of deception. Yet this store across from me right now, called Altar’d State, looks inviting, even though I think it’s geared toward women. The letters in the name are clean and modern, and they’re evenly centered above the entrance, on a slanted, wooden awning that runs nearly the width of the store. The tall windows are arched and contain rectangular bits of stained glass, all in various shades of brown, beige, tan, and off-white (I imagine that at some point, someone used words like “khaki” and “cream”). The facade reminds me a little bit of Macaroni Grill, which has even further pleasant associations. Anyway, staring at Altar’d State, it strikes me that mall storefronts are a little like television shows: just as TV gives us artificial slices of life on one convenient screen, the mall gives us artificial slices of architecture in one convenient location. Neither is what you would call real life or fine architecture, but they both seem to be enough. They both seem to satisfy some vagrant need for spectacle.

Maybe its the cleanliness and brightness that I love at the mall, and the good smells, and the splashes of color in the makeup department at Belk. The fact that the mall is climate-controlled is a definite plus, and opportunities for people-watching abound (even though most of the adults seem to be nursing a low-grade misery). Also, there’s something to be said about the pairing of familiar stores, like Dillard’s, with stores I’ve never heard of, like Native and Nomad. It’s as if the mall is saying, “I know who I am, yet I also like trying new things.” Humans like that kind of spirit.

Inevitably, I begin to wonder what this desire to be in the mall says about me. Am I drawn by the scent of retail? By its implied promise that happiness can be bought? Yet I almost never buy anything. (But I could. But I don’t. It goes back and forth.) To embrace the idea that buying brings happiness is, of course, shallow. So if I do get some kind of thrill from close proximity to retail, I hope that it is only a vicarious one. Perhaps the fascination is an expression of social class: an overlap of the working-class obsession over brand names with the middle-class obsession over buying power. This doesn’t feel quite accurate either, though. I shook brand-name obsession decades ago (I like to think), and as I’ve already said, I almost never buy anything. Or maybe, like most Americans, discussions of social class put me on edge, so I’ll drop that. Anyway, I think I’m gonna just drop this whole thing. I’m beginning to feel shallow.

Natural or Sad?

I used to think we could commune with nature, like the way that Ralph Waldo Emerson suggests in his writings on Transcendentalism; that by virtue of simply spending time in it, with ears, eyes, and mind attuned, something spiritual might pass between us and it.

At some point a break occurred, however, and I find the notion of communion with nature increasingly difficult. Indeed, the word that presents itself to me over and over now is ‘indifference.’ Nature is indifferent to us–I can’t seem to shake this feeling, though I want to. I want that innocence of my twenties, when the woods buzzed with mystery; when a gust of cool wind contained echoes of ancient rituals; when the deep red-orange of autumn maples burned with knowledge of species long extinct; when the molecules of magnificent events lingered inside the furrows of ashes, behind the peels of shagbark hickories, or tight against the rippled trunks of beech trees. But now it all seems like mere vegetation–no less beautiful, just void of the visions it once held; no less a fertile ground for the imagination, just no longer offering transcendence.

Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Modernist literature, or perhaps it’s an effect of age. I do miss seeing nature through those younger eyes. Oddly, though, the loss is not all that sad. In fact, it feels pretty natural.