Reading and living: For both you need a strategy to contend with the mechanics. There’s the body, and there’s the book. To find out what happens, you have to turn the page. To keep things moving, you leave things behind.
You turn the page, knowing that as you do so that page goes unclear, and fades, and is gone altogether. You abandon today to its devices, count on the sun rising again and forgiving those particulars. It’s all but gone, and you go on, adding to the pile of yesterdays.
Memory. Memory’s the active ingredient. Not grudge. Not fret. Not trauma. Memory. It is the Godsend to our bewildering, unsustaining optimism.
I had a feeling a year or so ago that even a plague wasn’t going to be enough to interrupt that habit of forgoing the past, that some epic and dangerous chance to get it right was already passing from among us. I wrote a couple of newsletters about it. Some requests came in to use the technology for good. Early this year, against my own unvanquished mistrust of the medium, I did a live streamed quartet of q/a sessions called A Generation’s Worth. It was a way of contending with the vainglory and the triumphalism that I’d seen coming our way, once we ‘got on the other side’ of all this distance, this interruption of regularly scheduled programming.
Recover. Reunite. Return and restore and reset. That’s the programme, the dance music play list for the summer of ’21. It seems like much of the world is set to get behind it.
No remembering, though. Already there’s nostalgia for those good old pre-pandemic days, and 2019 is the new standard for cultural sanity, and there’s all but no recollection that we are where we are on account of those good old days. The time of forgetting is upon us.
So I wrote something, a clutch of dispatches from the frontier of memory, a plea for awakening, for authentic recall. It’s called A Generation’s Worth: Spirit work while the crisis reigns. Part recitation, part memoir, part transcription of a libretto of lament, it’s written on account of the plague, that disheveled revealer that came among us. I aimed for brevity this time. Severity might have come in its place. I wondered – I still wonder – whether the work I’ve taken up is useful in a time of plague. So I held myself to the standard of utility. I dated the entries: notes preparing for the call, the session itself, and its aftermath. Times four. All of it occurred between the end of January and the end of March, 2021. Unwilling to be among the beauty bereft this time, unwilling to have this sentry unadorned in a time of trouble, I wanted the book to have a physical heft and grain unknown to its precursors. A Generation’s Worth is hardcovered, and it is illustrated: five grabado scenes illuminate the account. The artist and I went further: we made a hundred packets of hand pulled prints on handmade paper from the original plates at a printshop in Oaxaca in May, numbered and signed them. Then we destroyed the plates. They’re already a memory.
This is less documentary than document, a Domesday Book
of a kind, a little engraving made with the sharp edge of these
strange plague-begotten days, cut across the grain of all old habits
and beliefs. These are not, despite the dating, journal entries. These
are dispatches, flung over the acrylic barricades of these isolating
days. I was thinking of you, the decipherer, most of the time. When
you bear people in mind, a crypto commerce can appear, a kind of
kinship shorthand. I held myself to brevity. Severity may have been
the result. Dispatches are little witnessings, pleadings for
consideration. They are testimonies, banking on wonder and the
likelihood of a near future. They are refusals to go it alone.
These are stranger days. You wouldn’t have thought we had any
innocence left to lose. There’s less than there was, surely. A plague
turns out to be a merciless revelator God. The culture is naked in its
paltry autonomies, and self-drunk in a time that pleads for village
mindedness, and rights-addled just when the responsibilities and
burden of citizenship should prevail. Our naïveté, too, once our
bottomless personal and prized possession, is still there, though
God willing it’s in tatters by now. Let’s do well by it. Let’s see it
down. Let’s leave it where it lies.
With each of these sessions I’ve wondered actively and sometimes
to the point of stillness what it is that qualifies me to speak on the
themes I proposed. The questions posed in the sessions were the
occasion for me doing so, but they provided no credentials. The
halls of higher learning I haunted a generation or more ago, they
didn’t either. I’ve been a working man, though, and I’ve considered
carefully the conditions of citizenship in these times of trouble and
torment. Sheer endurance might qualify me to speak, but only about
It’s the kids, finally. They don’t provide me qualification, but they
do weep necessity, mandate, fatefulness. That binds me to them. No
matter their manners, their métier, they’re there. And they’ll be there
after me, no longer kids. And I’ve a hunch about what kind of a
world they’re inheriting, what kind of old people that will make of
them. My forbears were marked by that desolation of faith in
modernity which was The Depression. Then there were the war
years. I was born in its shadow. My heirs will be marked by this
plague. They’ll not be free of its ravages and its litany their whole
lives. That burden, theirs and mine, I’ve translated into a mandate
to be troubled aloud.
I’m walking the main drag of a tourist town at
sundown on an island in the Pacific. I have a companion,
a full head taller, maybe the same age, Sufi-inclined,
kind, my sponsor for an upcoming speaking event.
The walk is his idea, to help me know where I am.
Everything about it is grim, mercantile, salacious,
desolate. The striving of the world at its worst.
He stops, wheels around to face me, his face full of
sudden earnestness and realization. He says to me: “If it
wasn’t for the kids, I’d say, ‘Fuck it. Let’s party.’”
The kids are coming on, as I write this. I’ve volunteered for active
duty. I’m sometimes asked to join the fray, but I’m not waiting for
petitions. I’m not at the party, or the afterparty. I’m in the alley.
A pulmonary refugee now, my sensitivities don’t negotiate. They
foreclose. They force me southwards. It’s been good practice for a
plague, as things have gone. I keep my head down in heavy weather,
my collar up. But still, I know the rumour or the promise of people
who want to learn their times, laying down their truancy. I’m drawn
to that. I have the scent of the road all around me. It’s in my craw,
in my head. So, I keep my boots by the door, my hat on a hook. I
keep a guitar tuned, a good jacket, creased, on a hanger, just in case
the fog lifts, the coast clears. I keep my mind on my work. I’m not
done. That’s what I’m saying, should the saints be listening.
Generationally, this is a stab at redemption. A man without a choice
is a hard thing to shake loose.
Founder of Orphan Wisdom
Watch the trailer about the new book: