Center of the World

Center of the World
The Center of the World (according to the Cherokee tribe, at least). My center is stage left.

For the first time in a long time, I find myself with a bit of an urge to write. It’s been a strange few years, and looking at it now from a distance I think part of the problem is that I’ve just been too happy. My imaginary audience for the most part would be bored stiff by a person signing on each day to say how great life is. Don’t you just hate those people? It seems more pertinent to relate times filled with complexity and mixed feelings, because those are closer to the center of reality. In actuality though, I suspect that most who know me would be glad to hear that I’m doing well. But I just can’t think of that revelation as interesting.

It is much easier to write about traumatic experiences or to scribe angry polemics that you just have to get off your chest. I’ve spend a lot of time avoiding the latter, at least until yesterday. And as for trauma, well, historically it seems as if there is an eternal spring of those that bubble up. What stopped me from going there, in the beginning at least, is the thought that I might hurt someone who was there during the endless procession of tragic people moving in and out of my life— or worse still, get it wrong and need to be corrected. Now, it seems that almost everyone I have ever known is dead. No, I’m not that old. It’s just that most of my true friends lived that hard. You have to be a real overachiever to die when you are in your 20s or 30s.

The hurt of losing them (and the hurt of knowing them) was a key engine for creativity for me for many years. It didn’t manifest directly as being about them, but more a desire and drive to do something of some significance. The death of my mother a few years ago changed that profoundly. She was the first person I’ve ever known who actually died at almost the right time. By that I mean, she left no unfinished business and her life had been full and rewarding until that point. But I have to add the “almost” because she did suffer from dementia for 18 months or so before the end. It was cruel because it was not self-inflicted, but no nearly so bad as living through various chronic diseases that afflicted both my older brother and other friends. They spent a lot of time in pain; she didn’t.

But as my mother lost her mind, I began to realize that ultimately nothing matters as much as I thought it did. Success doesn’t matter. Legacies really don’t matter. Money doesn’t matter. Being kind to people is the only thing that matters— for me, at least. It’s the little kindnesses that make the world bearable. It’s those kindnesses that I remember most, when I think of all the people who are gone. It’s easy to subscribe to kindess as an abstract thing, I mean just who isn’t in favor of being kind? But kindness is also things like cleaning fecal matter out of a rug. It’s also continuing to talk to and visit someone long after they are recognizable as the person you knew. That sort of kindness is hard— hard and concrete.

I’ve lost most of my patience with the abstract these days. Talking about concepts like “coherence” and “identity” seems downright frivolous and trivial. What matters more to me is what we can touch, and what we can see. More and more I realize just how small and narrow that subset of things is. What we can imagine is vast; what we can actually experience is narrow and tiny. Recalling those years studying Blake, it’s just Songs of Innocence and Experience, I suppose. For decades, I was enraptured by innocence. Now, finally, I find myself wanting to more directly confront experience.

I guess I always pictured myself as spending most of my time reading poetry/prose or making photographs when I found the freedom to do it. Instead, I find myself wanting to build tables and cabinets and feel their presence in a room. It’s an odd adjustment, to be sure. A key adjustment is locating some sort of imaginary audience in my head that actually cares about such things.

2 thoughts on “Center of the World”

  1. I’d suspect that a woodworking audience is considerably larger than a poetry audience.
    You might even be surprised at how many of my language art friends are attracted to woodworking, particularly quallity furniture making.
    I suspect that it must have something to do with the sheer abstractness of language. After a number of years, you find yourself longing for something concrete that conveys the same principles.

  2. The key problem here is “imagined audience,” not actual audience. I’m not sure knowing about/anticipating a real audience is a good thing for me. I spent too many years teaching audience analysis and such; I have little interest in persuading/informing anyone else right now. I’m simply wondering if I can find joy in writing again.
    It’s the Groucho problem, ultimately. It’s hard to join any sort of club that would have me as a member. All the same though, it’s necessary to imagine them. That’s what I’m struggling with.

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