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.

Pickle’s Record Store Reboot

We spent a couple of days in my hometown of Union City, Tennessee, doing Christmas with my parents and brother and his family. On the way to visit my aunt yesterday afternoon, I took an indirect path through Graham Park. I spent many childhood and teenage hours in that park, from collecting tadpoles and playing tee-ball to skateboarding and meeting girlfriends (my first real kiss came on one of those playgrounds, and it was the awkwardest thing imaginable). Every corner of Union City seems to hold some kind of memory. No matter where I drive, memories come at me with unexpected, bittersweet clarity. This onslaught of memories got me thinking about a part of my thesis where I mention Pickle’s Record Store. Many may remember Pickle’s, but I suspect just as many have never heard of it, especially those of younger generations. So here’s an excerpt in which I’m writing about the poet Rilke’s idea that we have an obligation to create meaning in the world by “saying” things. In other words, by writing about Pickle’s, I give it more life than it would have otherwise had–immortalizing it, in a sense. Poets “say” with words, painters “say” with paint, musicians “say” with their instruments, et cetera. Here goes:

“Rilke makes a compelling case for the world’s need of us: like us, it is perishing, but it has no voice with which to proclaim its existence. A thing’s existence soon ceases, and if we don’t “say” it, there will be no record it ever was here: “More than ever / the Things that we might experience are vanishing,” and they vanish because whatever resides within a thing “outgrows it and seeks new limits” (DE 9.44-5, 48). Nature lets few things outlive their usefulness. Today’s strip mall is tomorrow’s weedy outcrop. But what if people congregated inside one of that strip mall’s shops, like they used to do at Pickle’s Record Store in Union City, Tennessee, twenty-five years ago, listening to reggae, partaking in a certain substance associated with reggae (so go the rumors), and generally being the kind of scandalous cool that only kids in their late teens can be? At that time, the store’s owner was something of an icon among a contingent of Union City High School’s juniors and seniors—possibly not the kind of man many parents would want their kids hanging around, but that only fueled his anti-hero status in their kids’ eyes. The shop is no longer there. The space is not a weedy outcrop yet, but Pickle’s has been replaced. Generations of kids are growing up in Union City with no memory of the old record store. It was a unique place in a city not known for such subcultural enclaves. But it met its end, as all things must do. Nevertheless, I have performed it a great service. Here, in this same paragraph, I have transformed Pickles Record Store by giving meaning to what would otherwise be a forgotten rectangle of retail space. I’m not saying that whatever replaced Pickles has no meaning, but that Pickles has had its life extended a few years by my inclusion of it in this essay. It may not be immortality, but it is more life than it had before.

“Sharing memories of defunct record stores is a base form of transformation, I admit; the meaning created is sparse. No great contribution to the arts has been achieved. But what matters here is that the memory has been “said” at all. Pickle’s may not achieve immortality from my effort, but I know of at least three who will read this essay, and they will know that Pickle’s existed, which is more life than the store could ever have expected.”

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.