Monday, October 03, 2011

A Dispatch From the Bottom of the Well


Glimpses from the bottom of a deep well: that's what it feels like, at times, living on this planet, at this time in history (do the victors actually get to rewrite the history books, I wonder?), living in this country (the U.S. of A.), living in this state (New Mexico) with its varied and colorful past, living in this city (Albuquerque) with its own history, the good and the bad taken together, and my own past, along with that of my family's. These are like coordinates in some sort of strange geography, entirely unique and personal, indecipherable without the proper credentials; a map that seems to have been forever lost, or misplaced, or never existed in the first place, a template much more difficult to explain than through mere genetics. One just can't tell for sure, out here in the wilderness of one's person, from deep in the bottom of that well, looking up at the sun-lit blue sky where, if the alignment is just so, stars can be made out from the glare of daylight, stars that represent those long-lost, almost entirely forgotten, dreams of youth, when the world was new and fresh and the future, though doubt-filled, was fresh and alive with possibility.

We seem, over the decades, to write our own obituaries, letter by letter, word by word, line by line, whole sentences built up from decisions made or not made, obliterating entire continents of alternative possibility with each branching-point firmly decided, frozen in place by the incessant tick of the clock, until we've arrived at our own personal end-game, few possibilities remaining to choose from, life seemingly inevitable, like the view from deep down inside the bottom of that well.

There was this piece in the New York Times about a writer (Dominique Browning) who decided to burn a life's worth of her own journals and diaries, all of it, the wheat together with the chaff, in the course of a few hours just smoke and ashes up the chimney, that resembles in no small way that well from which I look up. Her motivation, in part, was fueled by the fear of her kids finding out the secrets of her heart. Myself, I'm not so sure if that would represent a secret fear or a long-yearned-for desire.

I was thinking today, in the midst of the quietness of a house empty of family, about deleting my entire archive of digital photographs, years worth of pursuing an interest through various phases of passion and disinterest, representing years of cycling between burning hot, insane desire and cold, clinical doubt about one's skill and vision. Perhaps I would cull out the very best, have a few Blurb books printed up for posterity's sake, then click "File," "Edit," "Select all" and "Delete," into the waste bin of history, left for others to decide its merits, just clear my life of the detritus and clutter of trying and trying and trying, futile striving to be creative, trying to prove to someone -- Who? Myself? My long-deceased Mother? (whose face and voice I can scarcely recall now, decades later, but from whom I'm certain I derived my creative streak) -- anyone, that my thoughts and intentions have some worth above the white-hot background hiss of culture's buzz.

We all have our own personal Alexandrian Libraries needing to be burned, to dispense with one's fabled past and ancient secrets, as if rumor and legend were more important to one's progeny than actual fact, a biography more like a work of fiction, a self-immolation of sorts.

"He was a unique bird, that one was," they might say years later, built up from legend passed word of mouth, with only a few actual artifacts as proof of his existence.

I was thinking of this, about where we exist as persons within a larger history. Do we remain, for the most part, just numbers on accounting ledgers, along with millions of other such numbers, or names on city and county tax records, or meaningless user IDs on countless websites, just ephemeral data torn asunder, strewn in tiny electronic bits across vast, hidden architectures of secretive server farms, that can never be reconnected to the physicality of the actual person now long passed? Is the desire for fame and notoriety in actuality a desperate quest for immortality, to preserve within the records of a dying culture some evidence that one actually lived a life worth living?

Along with our individual libraries needing to be burned, are we all, in some way or another, erecting monuments, our own personal pyramids, intended to survive whatever it is to come next?

I think about the more notorious persons in history -- Nero, Hitler, Pol Pot -- or the more notorious criminals of our time, and wonder at the thought that theirs will outlive mine, that they will continue to exist in time immemorial through their notoriety, while evidence of my own history will soon be erased, aside from a few fleeting potsherds, fragments of brokenness in some deserted setting, rooms full of clutter soon to be delivered to the landfill or thrift store after my passing. It seems somehow intrinsically unjust and unfair, this cold, hard, clinically impersonal universe where only the fittest (or the most notorious) survive.

What about the millions of voiceless Africans who have perished in anonymous abandon, each one of them a unique person but lacking the means to make a mark or scratch some line on some surface more permanent than they, unable to escape the inevitable tidal surge of history that sweeps aside all except those more prominent outcroppings? Who speaks for them, some international aid agency? Some photojournalist's refugee camp essay? Some politician intent on making his mark, too? Bullocks, all of it.

Dangerous thoughts, these. Best be kept far from the gaze of the Thought Police. Oops; too late. Now what?

Here is what: let us continue the way we have been going. Let us scratch out our meager lives in blind hope of a better tomorrow, despite evidence to the contrary. Let us not trust the voices from the history books, for they are fabrications penned by the vanquishers for the wage slave's consumption. Let us continue to be enslaved to our past, in blissful ignorance of some brighter future.

I thought I saw, for a fleeting moment, faces back-lit by the sky, peering down into the depths of that well from far above, partly obscuring the daylight; but no, they are gone, or never were, and as far as myself, I am happy and content sitting down here, peering upward in wonder, waiting for nightfall.

(Posted via AlphaSmart Neo)

2 Comments:

Blogger Rob Bowker said...

I laboured at length under the conviction that we are only how others see us, remember us, talk about us. I think the conviction was prompted by the death of a family member, and having to explain (to myself) what happens when people aren't there anyomore. Then there's a meal and my nan's in the room, and I look at my hands and see my dad. Doesn't matter how you take it, whether you believe or not, but they are still here though each left little material objects behind them.

5:02 AM  
Blogger Rob Bowker said...

PS: Expertly expressed, by the way, thanks Joe.

5:03 AM  

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~Joe

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