Ruins

Journal Entry, 28 Jan 2001

I’m sitting naked in the bottom half of a giant clam shell at my grandmother’s house, cool water from the garden hose swirling around my pudgy legs. The outside of the shell is rough; the pearly inner surface is the smoothest thing I’ve ever felt. It’s late Florida summer in 1968, and the sun is hot on my two-year-old skin. I’m surrounded by lush St. Augustine grass. My mother is nearby, laughing. Cicadas in the hickory trees fill the whole world with their chitinous music. I pick up the end of the hose and sling running water over my head. My belly jiggles when I laugh at the arcs of liquid diamond catching the sunlight.

Memories are unreliable, and each time we recall something, it inches closer to our idea of what we want it to have been. Do I remember this scene only because I’ve seen photographs of it? Almost certainly. I remember the red roses my grandmother cultivated beside the house, but I’m sure that memory is from later years.

When I was around five years old, the man who had recently married my mother periodically sent me to the Gulf service station across the busy road to buy Camel cigarettes for him. It would never have occurred to anyone in that place and that time not to sell smokes to a five-year-old. I remember the tobacco smell and the crinkle of cellophane. Sometimes I brought back matches. I remember amber glass ashtrays and Camel butts floating in the toilet bowl.

We lived with my grandmother in that house, about 100 yards from the Thonotossassa Road exit on eastbound Interstate 4, for a couple years. Behind the house, Granny kept a few laying chickens and a pair of goats that kept the lawn uniformly trimmed. According to my mother, I drank a lot of goat milk the first couple years of my life.

In the early nineties, while I was home on leave from Fort Carson, Colorado, I drove out to see Granny’s old house. I found charred ruins. It had burned down less than a year before.
So it goes.

2020 Vision (an unedited rant)

Several simultaneous, near-apocalypse-level horrors are running their course all around us. But the one I’m thinking most about at the moment–the one that’s most affecting my family–is the pandemic it that seems half of us, at least here in Florida, are pretending doesn’t exist.

We have a full house. One daughter awaiting her return to Morehead State University in August, another bound for the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, and a son about to start his senior year of high school.

All their lives have been scrambled. The future is a cloud of uncertainty. And they ask questions that are starting to sound a lot like, “Why bother?”

I spend a lot of time thinking about my oldest son, who enlisted in the Marine Corps last year. Military service requires a certain level of comfort with uncertainty, and I believe he’s naturally hard-wired for that sort of thing, but nothing is “normal” these days, not even for a young Marine.

What have I experienced in my half-century of life that I can offer them? It would be easy to tell them how easy they have it–that when I was their age, things were really hard. That’s both true and untrue, because each of us has to live within our own perspective.

Our family is fortunate–yes, privileged. The police aren’t gunning for us. We aren’t being separated from our children and deported country we’ve never lived in. Clean water flows from the tap. So far, we still have our jobs. Our family is weathering America’s steep decline better than we have a right to expect.

But all of us are going to have to adjust our expectations. America is changing. This is a metamorphosis into something we can’t yet identify. The only thing that’s clear is that we cannot go on as we have in the past.

That shit has got to change.

Liberal Professor Schooling Alt-Reich Militia Member (dramatization)

It’s time to demand that our leaders lead on behalf of all of us, that our police serve and protect everyone without checking for skin tone and listening for an accent, and it’s time for us to get involved in whatever way we can.

I often feel helpless to make a difference. My soldiering days are long gone, and I’m a freelance writer and editor who spends his days at a desk in a converted suburban dining room.

I see people around me behaving poorly. Half of my neighbors seem to think current events are an excuse to party like it’s 1999, gather as they please, and refuse to wear masks in public places. I’m not here to rant, but I am discouraged.

It’s worse than that. I live in Florida, and the willful stupidity I see all around me, at all levels, is beginning to piss me off. Seriously, if you can’t show some compassion and humanity, and if you’ve deliberately switched off your brain, at this point I have no use for you.

I’m looking for opportunities to start conversations about how we go forward as communities and as a country. As I see it, our politics have divided us into two nations–one that wants democracy and justice, and another that wants a perception of comfort and security for themselves and those like them, at any price. We’re going to have to learn to be one nation again. That’s going to be tough.

Many countries have failed to come back together after conflict. In fact, as it turns out, so did the United States. We swept too much under the rug after the Civil War, and it’s still there. All of it.

November is coming. We’re going to have to work hard to repair all the damage the current administration has done, both directly and through the sort of indirect, trickle-down-fascism that enables state and local governments and domestic yahoos to feel comfortable breaking institutions and hurting innocent people.

Whatever America looks like in five or ten years, it won’t be anything we have ever been used to. If we get it right, that’s a good thing–something not to fear, but to hope for.

Did I mention that November is coming? I suggest we vote for something better. It’s going to take all of us, so if you’re not registered, kindly get your shit together.

If you think the government we’re enduring now is ok, none of this was meant for you anyway. So get off my lawn, and wear a mask, FFS.

A Shout to the Void

I haven’t visited this website for almost a year! Where does the time go?

Maybe I should change the title of this blog to “I Wrote.”

Times are strange, humans of Earth. It looks to me like the planet has had enough of our shit and is in the beginning stages of exerting a little push-back. Countries that know the sound of existential threat have listened, and in those places, fewer people have died of Covid-19.

In places like United States of America, greed and hubris rule, and people are dying in a preventable catastrophe that takes as many lives each day as the September 11th attack. Well, there’s really no place like home, is there?

I’ve found it hard to write fiction for awhile, but I have been writing, and especially editing, for Content Workshop. I’m grateful to be in a situation that allows me to work from home during the pandemic. And, as Jason Isbell sings, I’m just lucky to have the work. I’m also fortunate to work with great people.

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I sold a reprint a few weeks ago, a welcome small victory. Thanks to Fresh.ink for picking up my short story, “The Grove,” which first appeared in print back in 2015, in Issue 3 of Bridge Eight Literary Magazine. Fresh.ink tells me to expect it online sometime in June.

My work-in-progress is another short story. It’s science-fiction this time, which is my true love. Many years ago–and I turned 54 three days ago, so when I say “many,” believe me–I read the great Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” It stuck with me, and when I read it again more recently, it inspired an idea for something new.

I’m still running, four or five miles every two days. Lately, I’ve been running with a mask. Usually, it’s so early that I don’t see many people, but I slip the mask on before I pass someone on the sidewalk. Self-conscious as a tall man in a black mask, I make a point of wishing each person a cheery good morning. That also helps not to scare people when I’m coming up behind them. I hope. Although this morning, a large shaggy dog lunged at me when I spoke.

Thanks to that pet owner for having a good grip on the leash.

I’ll be back sooner than you have any reason to believe, dear readers…both of you. In the meantime, I wish you all the best in adapting to our new, not-so-fun reality. Hang in there. If you’re lonesome, send a message here, or on Twitter @steventhowell.





Due for a Giant Meteor

assorted dinosaur toys

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

I graduated from the University of Tampa low-residency MFA program in 2015, and I’ve missed the sense of community that came along with it ever since. In my everyday life, the only writer I have regular contact with is my wife, Susan. She and I talk about all sorts of things, including writing, and not writing, but there’s no substitute for spending day after day in the company of a bunch of people pursuing artistic goals.

I try to attend UT’s Lectores reading series whenever I can. It happens twice a year, during the program’s 10-day residencies. Last Friday’s reader was Alexander Chee, whose essays I’ve read and who I had the pleasure of meeting in the space of a brief handshake. He impressed me as a quiet, intelligent man–maybe a bit shy–whose favorite activity I’d bet is something other than standing at a podium in front of a bunch of MFA candidates and strap-hangers such as myself.

UT hosted a reception for students, faculty, and alumni the same evening. During the reception, I had a conversation with a member of the faculty whose writing I admire. It was the sort of conversation over a couple of beers that starts with catching up on the past year or two, then veers off the trail and into the woods. We each have a son on the cusp of adulthood, trying to figure out how to be a man. As fathers, we’re horrified at the used-up state of the world our generation is handing down for our descendants to deal with. The political situation, the threat of war each generation of Americans has come to expect, and how we deal with it brought out some of our hopes and worries about what’s ahead for our sons.

When he asked me how I felt about my son’s having recently enlisted into the Marine Corps, I offered up some boilerplate crap–“I’m proud of him, but terrified of what he’s getting into.” My writer friend wasn’t having it and let me know by asking gently incisive, and direct questions, like precisely targeted rabbit punches. He drew out some of my real fears, some based on my own military career, not all of which I confessed on the spot, and the conversation became an unexpectedly intimate thing that stuck with me for days and led to this rambling post.

To be in the company of writers is to take the risk and enjoy the rewards of being around people who think and evaluate for a living and miss little. I was saved from oversharing by the interruption of one of his bright-eyed students, but not before I shared some of how my son went through the process of deciding to enlist, rather than go to college. I talked about something Susan told me, that with her daughter, who is off studying astrophysics, she has progressed from acting as the parent of a teenager to the parent of an adult. That is, from the role of directly managing a kid to manage her life, to the role of a consultant who offers advice when asked for it.

This led to the subject of the shortness of a human life and the limited time each of us has to accomplish anything that can endure beyond our life spans. People, nations, civilizations come and go, each amounting to no more than the briefest flash of smoke in the scope of geological time, never mind the cosmic scope. Our squishy brains lack the capacity to comprehend a timescale beyond the existence of homo sapiens. To demonstrate this, he asked,

“Do you know much about dinosaurs?”

I said I think so, for a non-paleontologist.

“My son knows everything about them,” he said. “So–he’s got this pile of plastic dinosaurs, and he brings me a couple and shows me a t-rex and a stegosaurus–you know what those look like?”

I said that I did.

trex_vs_stegosaur

“We see those species together all the time, right? In picture books from the time we’re toddlers and on the shelf of all the toy stores, but–”

“They lived in different periods right? Jurassic and Cretaceous?”

“Right! T-rex and stegosaurus never laid eyes on each other, and the periods of time they lived are as far separated as humans are from the last of the dinosaurs. In comparison to the dinosaurs, humanity isn’t even a blip on the screen. But look at what we’re doing to the planet. It’s hell in a handbasket.”

“And our own pitiful lifespans are so short, we’re just ants in a pile.”

It was time for another beer.

“How do we keep from falling into nihilism?,” he said. “How do you do it?”

“I guess I try to have some hope that we’ll survive long enough to figure it out, as a species, before we burn it all up.”

“That’s why I turn to absurdism in my writing. It’s the only way I can move forward in the world without becoming a nihilist.”

This conversation, or whatever version of it my memory retains, has been playing in my mind for several days. It has led me to ask myself why I’m spending my time writing science fiction. How can I devote myself to creating what most consider mere entertainment? There’s limitless opportunity to tell stories that say, look, here’s what could happen if we don’t change. Or, we can unleash the dread inner nihilist and write stories that show how utterly fucked we are. We can shake our fist and call out warnings like Margaret Atwood or grit our teeth and go for the full Cormac McCarthy apocalypse. (I doubt either of those two would label themselves genre writers, despite clearly having written science fiction novels, and because the majority of their work is marketed as mainstream literary fiction.)

It’s possible that more beers were opened before time to move into the reading space for Mr. Chee. I mentioned the relatively sparse crowd. When I graduated from the program four years ago, readings were packed with students. I asked where everybody was.

“This is pretty much it,” he said.

Apparently, the program isn’t drawing the same number of suitable applicants. Of course, this is only my speculation. I wonder if the “MFA bubble” has finally popped. It seemed, a few years ago, that every writer (and a few non-writers) in America was rushing to enter an MFA program. I wonder if other programs have seen a decline in applications. I’d rather believe that than believe the program I attended is in decline.

In any case, I’m glad to have experienced it. UT is a great place to go to school, though without the G.I. Bill and the Yellow Ribbon Program, I couldn’t have afforded it barring an automobile-sized student loan.

I’m sorry to have missed my friend’s reading last week, and if he happens to read this, let it be known that I have one of his novel’s for him to sign when, hopefully, our paths cross again in six months or so. I’ll look forward to hanging out in the bar and bumping into other ever-more-grizzled alumni, meeting current students, and talking with writers.

 

Anticipation

I get a feeling I’ll do something big today.

I can taste it in the tea

when the idea begins to take shape–

a three-masted frigate out of the fog,

Better than the anticipation

of your long fingers and heat.

Look now.

I can see the figurehead,

Full-breasted and fresh-painted,

and there, just ahead,

a giant tentacle rises

to fondle her oaken curves.

Tea with Sleeping Dog

img_3254On the nights when dreams are far from comforting, and the aches of an overused body and a troubled soul project slow and familiar horror shows on the desert night screens of my eyelids, the relief of the coming of morning cannot be overstated.

I sat down to write about tea. Tea is a comfort and a human ritual as old as fire and pottery. I made tea, sat at my desk to the sound of the dog snoring on the other side of the room, and thought about sleep and the impossibility of sleep. There is light on the horizon now, silhouetting the papaya leaves rustling over the back fence. Soon, sunlight will shine on the desktop, and I’ll put the ordeals of sleep out of my mind for another day.

As a child, I walked through nightmares of a pure and surreal horror, of an army of land swimmers breast-stroking across the pasture, between the horses, toward the window where I awaited whatever doom they were never quite able to bring. My mother watched, silhouetted in the bedroom doorway, terrified by my sleepwalking and the nonsense I was speaking.
“Shut the door quick, Mom, before you let all the darkness out.”

When night terrors receded, and I learned to relish a young man’s deep slumber, I slept many a dreamless night and blocked the light of morning with a pillow until roused from bed to carry books and saxophone up a mile of overgrown, snake-infested country roadside, to a bus stop I shared with a kid whose greatest joy was knocking me down in the dirt. In those days, escaping into books, and into sleep, were my solace. One afternoon, I learned to fight back, bloodied the bus stop bully, and slept better for awhile.

Driven from home, I put myself through school by cooking, bartending, serving those with money to pay. For a few years, those nights went up in smoke, obliterated by alcohol, weed, and the slow parade of friends, lovers, and strangers who shared the wee hours with me. I once had a roommate who slept with a 12-inch kitchen knife under his pillow. Did I sleep at all?

The money ran out. I enlisted in the National Guard, joined R.O.T.C. the following year, and graduated on a stage with my long-estranged parents each pinning a gleaming second lieutenant’s bar on one of my shoulders.

As a soldier, I learned to sleep, night or day, still or in motion, on the ground, in a truck, or in a parachute harness bathed in red light and sweat with a helmet as my thrumming pillow against the bulkhead of an airborne C-130 until the jumpmaster’s “Stand up!” passed from front to back, paratrooper to paratrooper, with a tap on our snoozing armored heads.

The smell of tent canvas, diesel fumes, and CLP weapons oil in the pre-dawn darkness prompted an appetite for Army grits, powdered eggs, and coffee too hot to drink from a steel canteen cup. These smells persist like grooves in vinyl.

Never stand when you can sit. Never sit when you can lie down. Never stay awake when you can…

Sleep. If you can. And dream. I remember more of my dreams these days. Some leave traces of great adventures, voices, or the scent of a person’s skin. Most replay some version of my failures, crimes, fears, and inadequacies. When sleep abandons me, and I lie awake beside Susan, and my mind begins to prey upon itself like a starving wolf eating its own paw, I rise for a glass of water and to check the time, to write what I can piece together, to make tea, and to await the forgetfulness of sunlight.

Some who I love, who will still have me, will rise in a couple hours. We’ll laugh and share breakfast, and I’ll be able to look forward to the possibility of a good night’s sleep and the dreams that may come, and maybe to dream something sweet, right up until sunrise.

Goodbye Facebook, and Other News

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With Susan in Bristol, TN, for the 2018 Rhythm & Roots Music Festival

Hi, Friends. It’s been awhile. I hope you’re all well.

I’m going to ramble on a bit, so maybe make yourself a cup of whatever bitter brew you’re partial to, and come on back. I’m sipping some scalding Earl Grey with orange peel and honey. It’s 7:00am, and I’m dressed for the 6-mile run I’ll start when I finish this post.

It’s 69F and cloudy in Valrico, Florida. Birds are singing outside. I look forward to breathing deeply of the humid morning air for about an hour. I’ll listen to a podcast while I run, probably Starship Sofa, since it’s exactly the right length, and one of my favorites. The host, Tony C. Smith kinda grows on you. I’ve been listening for more than a decade. Good luck with the allotment, Tony.

Some news. Last month, fed up with Facebook’s evil machinations, I downloaded my data and deleted my account. It felt drastic, but necessary. If you miss my Facebook posts, thank you, and I’m sorry to have vanished from your feed.

Facebook’s product is usI had begun to feel like a sort of digital farm animal, bled daily by an amoral corporation that we now know uses our data in ways not in our best interest, including mining our personal chat conversations. Facebook has become the internet’s most bloated and loathsome parasite. So I’m out. But to those former Facebook friends who miss me there, know that I miss you too. So, if you care, get in touch. There are so many ways. If you’re local, give me a call, and let’s go get a cup of coffee or a couple beers. If you’re not nearby, send an email. I know this is crazy, but you could even write me a letter, on paper. I promise to answer. Postage stamps–a reason to leave the house!

There were scores of people with whom I was acquainted only through Facebook. I decided that Facebook relationships, unless they exist on some other level, are not real relationships in the sense that I want to experience them. And these artificial relationships weren’t worth the data tax I was paying to the Zuckerberg Empire.

I’ll miss Mikhail Iossel’s beautiful photography and writing, the University of Tampa MFA Alumni page, John Santa’s Marathon Jam adventures supporting the Fisher House. I’ll miss seeing relatives’ posts about the lives they live that I never otherwise see. But I’m old enough to remember life before social media, and I know that authentic relationships don’t necessarily depend on a wi-fi connection. Nevertheless, you can still find me on Twitter, @steventhowell, and on Instagram (also owned by Facebook but possibly less intrusive and less…evil?) as stethohow.

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I last ran the Gasparilla 15k on a chilly morning in 2015.

Speaking of age, getting old sucks. I’m training for the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 15k next month, and my body protests more every year. I’ve been running regularly since 1985, and I don’t know how I’d go on without it. I feel best when I’m outside, covering ground. It’s when I’m sedentary that the aches and pains make themselves known. I know my hips and knees won’t put up with this forever. I’m not the 30-year old soldier I used to be. Someday I’ll have to stop running, but not today.

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Mt. Sterling, KY

Almost exactly a year ago our family lost a loved one, my father-in-law, Charles “Chili” Ishmael.  Christmas was bittersweet, but we gathered in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, to remember him and celebrate all the new things happening with our children. Weddings planned. Babies born. Hopes for the future. Love is abundant in my life, and I am grateful.

In 2018 our two older dogs passed on. The first, about six months ago, had lived to a ripe old age, in dog years. The second, our beloved Lucy, leapt from the open tailgate of my SUV on a rainy afternoon, slipped on the way out, and broke her back before my very eyes. I’ve struggled with the feeling that, if I had only reacted more quickly, I could have saved her. Life is better with dogs, but they’re with us for such a short time.

I’m writing fiction. I’ll soon be looking for a couple critical readers for a short story that’s just about finished. (any volunteers?) It’s inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” but in a much different setting and circumstances. When I’m done with that, I plan to dive back into a novel I’ve had in storage for 11 years. The reasons I abandoned it have turned to dust, and I think it could be a good book. So I’m going to try again.

So, what is this blog for? I still don’t know. Maybe just clearing my mind in the morning before a run. And now it’s time to hit the road.

Keep in touch, Friends.

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Friends Welcome. Come Visit.

 

Mr. Lambert, Take Down That Flag

If you’ve driven near the I-4 & I-75 interchange in Tampa, you’ve seen the huge Confederate flag. That flag is a perpetual slap in the face to every African-American in Hillsborough County. Every time I’ve driven by that flag, I’ve wondered who’s responsible. Who would go to such trouble to display such a divisive symbol?
Here’s who–Marion Lambert.
Old Marion seems like such a down-to-earth guy, doesn’t he? According to the Tampa Bay Times’ October 24th human interest story, he’s quite proud of his namesake, an ancestor who Marion says served in Tennessee under the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. In case you’re light on American history, Gen. Forrest founded the Ku Klux Klan.
Oh, but Marion’s just a Good Old Boy, never meanin’ no harm. Why he even employs a live-in African-American woman as a housekeeper. So clearly, not a racist at all.
This flag business is all about his “heritage.”
I’ve heard that same ignorant bullshit all my southern life from misguided people, often good people, sometimes people I love, who simply don’t understand the propaganda they’ve been fed from birth, the full reality of the brutal slave state the Confederacy was, and the open wounds from which our country is trying so hard to heal.
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I think Mr. Lambert understands perfectly the effects of his choice to display an enormous symbol of hate in the most public place possible.
I’ve said it to myself each time I’ve driven past that damned flag, and I’ll say it here. As a white person, and a southerner, you make me feel ashamed, Mr. Lambert. I hope you have the opportunity to feel, sometime in this life or the next, the way you make thousands of our fellow Americans who are descendants of slaves feel when they drive past the hateful flag you saw fit to hoist over the busiest intersection in Florida.
I suspect you’d deny being a traitor even more emphatically than you deny being a racist. But Florida hasn’t been part of the rebellious Confederacy for a century and a half. So why not pull that treasonous flag down, and replace it with the Stars and Stripes? Many of us would thank you for getting that thing out of our sight.

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

My son, here may indeed be torment, but not death.
—Dante (Purgatorio)

I finished the final 70 or so pages of George Saunders’ masterpiece this morning. It has been around for awhile, and I realize I’m late to the party, but I’m compelled to try to explain the effect this book had on…my soul.

Saunders addresses issues that have plagued American life and thought since the beginning of our democracy. He also addresses existential issues that all of humanity has wrestled with since we first looked up from a campfire and wondered why the hell we were here on this world. The book seems to spring from a sort-of Catholic point of view, as the entire novel is set in an interpretation of Purgatory–the Bardo. (Bardo– in Tibetan Buddhism, a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to the length of, and conduct in a person’s life, and the manner of death.).

W.W. Lincoln

William Wallace Lincoln, c. 1862

I could go on for days, so let me toss out a few ideas from this novel that intrigue and terrify me. None of these ideas are new to me, yet, strangely, I find myself newly concerned with them in a more urgent manner than before. This, friends, is the first clue that one has encountered great literature. I’ll keep it to three, though the book brims with fascinating concepts:

Judgement–that once we have committed sins in this life, they are irrevocable and cannot be atoned for. A price must be paid. Judgement is a horrifying prospect, especially as it unfolds in this novel as an implacable and clearly defined process for which there can be no remedy or exception. Saunders’ depiction of a particular sinner’s entry into hell is especially sobering. Make some room on the doom sofa, Dante Alighieri.

The Afterlife—that it may dwarf our carnal existence in terms of what we call “time,” but its nature may be wholly dependent upon the acts we commit during our flash-in-the-pan sojourn on Earth. Lincoln in the Bardo thrusts a filth-encrusted mirror before my eyes in which I see my whole life, my choices, my mistakes…my crimes. Perhaps the greatest/most terrifying thing about this book, for me, is the lightning-strike imperative it conveys to Be Better; I must do what I can to atone for my sins here. Now. Otherwise, I am doomed. This feeling springs not only from my innate sense of self-preservation, but from the compassion I feel for those I have wronged and the love I have forgotten how to express for certain people who may not realize they’re dear to me.

Racism—As fictional Lincoln admits is the case within himself, once we, as children, have been tainted by racist ideals and institutions handed down to us from previous generations, we carry it inside us, often invisibly, throughout our lives in the same way we carry any other childhood-learned sense of what the world is and how it works.
The difference in some is that, once knowledge enlightens us; when the light of day shines on the festering places in our souls and illuminates the ugliness harbored there, we can begin to resist. Once we learn to recognize injustice, we can live as good people who choose not to act on our worst impulses. Nevertheless, the racism the world feeds us as children survives like a dormant disease that must be managed by constant attention and learning and above all, true compassion.

So many human beings, whether wittingly or not, nurse their infants on mother’s milk tainted with an insidious moral poison that those fortunate enough to become aware of it must spend their lives working to overcome in themselves. Saunders’ Lincoln shows us that the humility of recognizing this must come before we can make a meaningful effort to address racism in the world around us.

And yes, my fellow white Americans, I’m mainly talking about us.

The “best” literature urges us to be better than we are, to push the edge of civilization ever further into the wilderness of ignorance and hatred that surrounds us; to simply love as hard as we can, for as long as we have, and stop doing harm.

I’m not a person who shows a lot of outward emotion, but…yes, this book makes me weep with remorse, with existential terror, with gratitude, and with jaw-dropping awe at the absolute artistic mastery of George Saunders.

Memory, History, and Civilization

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I know things that I cannot remember. If I can’t recall a piece of information, do I still know it? At times, usually long after the recollection would have been useful, forgotten bits of memory resurface, and I again have access to the information. Sometimes it’s a scent or a sound or a color that whacks the chassis of my memory in just the right way to coax the mechanism back into operation. Sometimes it’s inexplicable.

I never forget faces, but I sometimes forget names. I forget the names of people I meet at social gatherings, sometimes within seconds. Sometimes within minutes, despite inwardly repeating the name to myself in an effort to retain it. I forget the names of people I choose not to know. I forget the names of people I have known in the past—coworkers, classmates, people with whom I shared drinks, conversation, and hard work. These are often people whose acquaintance was a matter of necessity alone. No amount of self-interrogation will produce their names. They are lost to me. Yet weeks later, perhaps while running or cooking or in the moments before I open my eyes in the morning, a name will come to me. I’ll hear the person’s voice and experience the same emotions I felt the last time I saw that person. Though their names were lost to me for a time, I knew them. I never forget the names of people I love. I never forget the names of people I despise.

Some of my journals are older than my children, and it’s clear that my memory of events is far from accurate. More often than not, when I search an old journal for a person, event, or details such as an address, I find that what I read matches my memory not at all. My own handwriting reads like a letter from an alternate past. My journals are mental time capsules from a version of myself that I have overwritten like an internal hard drive, so many times that the original information only exists in the form of dried ink on paper. In my mind, facts are fungible, malleable things. Only in these journals do memories become artifacts that can be handled years later like weathered objects pulled from a chilly bog.

What does all this tell me about the things that I know? How can I be certain I’m right about anything I’ve learned in my half-century of life? There must be an aggregate of knowledge that exists in a thinking person’s mind that doesn’t depend on any one, particular bit of information. Maybe this is what we call street smarts, horse sense, or wisdom. Yet, as I type these words, it occurs to me that claiming wisdom in oneself must be the first step toward becoming an old fool who thinks he knows everything and has nothing more to learn about the world and the creatures that inhabit it.

History and literature provide human civilization with the wisdom of facts. We can read about the triumphs and mistakes of those who lived and loved and suffered before us. Memory isn’t a prerequisite for our species’ progress, but the ability to interpret humanity’s past is.

We remember things that we cannot know. Such memories are inborn. The compassion of humanity lives in us as it has in all those who came before us. This knowledge of the soul doesn’t require a written record to comprehend. We know in the marrow of our bones, for example, that stealing children from their mothers is a monstrous act. Yet some choose to use their innate will and intelligence to circumvent their conscience. They act outside morality to seize power or wealth and convince those who understand the faulty nature of human memory and reasoning that evil is a justifiable path to good. In such cases, the ape with the biggest stick often gains the upper hand and does a great deal of damage. Intelligent people go along with the gas-lit madness, succumbing by reasonable increments to fascism. Sleepwalking into oblivion.

Others read the journals.

We’ve seen this again and again. Most of us are too young to remember, but we have the history. Fascists constantly try to reinvent themselves. This time, in America, they’re draped in stars and stripes. They tell us that compassion is weakness, and there aren’t enough resources to go around. Again, they deny history and offer an alternate reality of their own invention.

The free press is the canary in the coalmine. When journalists begin to suffer arrest or worse at the hands of authoritative figures, as they do in under several current authoritarian regimes,  we’ll know we’re in an existential crisis as a nation. As always, the success of tyrants depends on our complicity, and our continued silence may only mean the monster will devour us last.