To herd with demons from hell beneath,
Saw things that made him, with groans and tears, long
For even death".--James Clarence Mangan
When I was in fifth grade, the janitor could push a straight pin through his arm muscle without flinching or pain. He did it slowly, with concentration, as if it were not so much an act of folly as an act of strong will. But for all the carnival beauty and repulsion of this spectacle, his stoicism in the face of self-inflicted wounds did not convince me of his dignity. I learned what a cool and noble guy he was because he went after school, and participated while my fifth grade English teacher taught him to read.
A rotund, sturdy man, with a ready sense of humor, he sat in the little middle school chairs at the "reading table", and slowly formed out the words in the books.He'd gone decades without knowing how. We kids would sometimes happen in after school, and there he'd be, acquiring that elusive literacy.
I think tonight how people without advantages impress me from time to time with how they seize the moment. I recall impoverished widows who could enliven a church function with deep-fried chicken. An elderly man walked by the tracks into town each day, for want of a car. He had no money, but he had white spats and a hip cane. He gave us fresh strawberries from his garden each year. He did not mind that he had no novels written, no corporate positions attained.
I've seen the studies that suggest that on the whole, people with money lead more contented lives than people without money. On some stark baseline, I suppose this must be true. It's easier to be miserable when one is hungry or cold.
But I think sometimes of the rarified ennui which afflicts those blessed with relative material comfort. It's that sense of "not enough". A job is "not enough". A particular spouse or inamorata is "not enough". An educational opportunity is "not enough". A house/car/neighborhood/state is "not enough".
I have seen much of this country, and a bit of this world. No matter where one looks, rich or poor, one can find lack. One can find people struggling with the demons of anonymity, of living out eighty three point seven years, give or take forty, and not making any real difference to anyone.
In War and Peace, the fellow says something to the effect that it's not death in battle he fears, but not knowing what is on the other side. Yet so often, I think people fear not knowing what is on "this" side, the side plainly visible and not subject to religious doubt.
Did you ever write you obituary in your head? I have, recently, and found it wanting. Sometimes I'd like to live like the person whose obituary I'd want to read.It's a vain, idle thought, which two guys in Ecclesiastes would probably frown upon. But I'd still like to live a life which merited a cool obituary.
But I think that very desire is a clouding of things that matter. It's a bit like the Bhavagad--"all wisdom is clouded by desire...like a mirror by dust". The sheer wanting to "be somebody" may obscure one's ability to simply be at all. One is nameless and faceless, because one cannot accept oneself as one is, really. It's desire, a materialism of ambition.Yet, maybe one can use the idea as a touchstone, and yet do without worrying about being known for doing.
I'd love to sit on a screen porch, on a cool Spring evening, without a moment's care about who or what I am about. It's that moment of "I am here now" that is so important. I do not believe for a moment that scientific discoveries or great acts of compassion are made by people who sit about longing for life to have meaning.I think, instead, that although the wide variety of human life can saddle even the achievers with despair, that the escape from Hell is not only in "I believe", but also "I will do, even if nobody will remember".
Sometimes, too, it's that courage in being willing to be a sixty-seven year old illiterate sititng in a kiddie chair, reading from a primer. It's that sense of starting one's own business, even if one has never owned a business ever before.It's even writing down who and what one is, even if one has no hope of fame or fortune, but just a need to see the words on the page.
I come to believe that the longing to escape one's otherwise workable life is in fact Hell. Hell, after all, is not going to be all coal-smoke oriented. It's going to have green grass--invitingly appealing, urging the on-looker to come to Hell.I imagine that Hell is not that dissimilar from Kentucky, all rolling hills and gorgeous fields of grass. But I kinda reckon that the grass is not "blue-green" but tinged with a bit of red. Appealing, you know, but not quite right, somehow.
In my metaphor, Hell is the way to try to artificially escape one's task at hand, whatever that task may be. It's not Sisyphus pushing the rock uphill. It's trying to set the rock aside, and get a lemonade instead.
I think, sometimes, that one's own rock to lift (cross to bear, hurdle to jump) is not what damns, but what saves. Because she who would truly lose her life shall try to save it. It's not meant to be saved, you see. It's meant to be used. But consumed doing what? That's the challenge.
Sometimes the demons lack tails or wings. Sometimes they're only idea, metaphors trapped in one's mind. An extra chocolate from the front-office dish, or getting lost in resentment over nothing, when the real work beckons.
It's like we are not all here to be rich or famous or pretty, but we are all here.What then do we do? Surely something more than feel the damnation in not being rich or famous or pretty.
But finding this thing to do, this alternative to wealth or beauty or fame--that's the quest. I'm not all that good at altruism, but I'm coming to believe I ought to be. I'm not much for boredom in life, and I don't want to acquire a taste. As my father says about gambling--"I never tried it, because I just might like it, and I can't afford that". But every time I do what I know I ought, I marvel at how easy it was, and wonder what keeps me from always making progress.
The things that make me groan and put me into tears are so often how I define the problem. Who needs real troubles, when I can find them in nothing?
But if I could put aside all that longing, and just be and do, what is it that I would be and do?
That is the question, I suppose. Not "to be", as that's how Danish princes waste their time. But "to do", and "to do heedlessly, but with all one's heart".
That is the question.