Friday, March 17, 2017

Thoughts On An Old Oak Desk

I do most of my writing at an old oak desk in the bedroom. It had once belonged to my grandmother on my father’s side and shared a place in the farmhouse living room with a player piano and a gun rack with an impressive array of hunting rifles. My grandmother kept a diary at this desk, making brief daily entries about the weather and people visiting and the health of the cows they continued to milk in the barn that stood in a shallow gully protected from the wind until they were in their eighties. The last time I visited my grandmother and grand uncle was in the summer of 1968. I remember they still had a few cows but I can’t remember them being milked. I do, however, vividly remember my grandmother’s knobby, arthritic hands. It hurt to look at them. I see my grandmother’s hands in Keith Richards’s hands. How odd that of all people it would be Keith Richards who would most remind me of my grandmother.
The desk was varnished and stained with a dark brown color many years ago. It has a flap that is pulled down for a writing surface. For a long time I had assumed the desk was a relic from the late 19th century and a life on the prairie that had lately been the province of the Assiniboine and Chippewa and endless herds of buffalo but there is a large hollow space inside where a Philco radio was housed. My grandmother probably got her desk from a Sears catalogue in the 1920s. That blows some of the romance for me, but the desk’s inherent dignity does nothing but arouse my respect whenever I pull the flap down and begin to read or write.
I would prefer to do my writing at a much larger desk and in a much larger room with less furniture and certainly not a bed or a mirror to my immediate left. One glance to the left and I get to see yet again how old I’ve become and how futile it appears to be sitting at a desk.
What happened to my life, I wonder, where did it all go?
I started out in my twenties wanting to be the next Richard Brautigan. Then in my thirties I wanted to be the next Tom Robbins. I didn’t begin submitting work until I was in my forties. Most of it was (predictably) rejected, but a lot of it wasn’t. I managed to publish quite a few books in my lifetime, books that I’m proud to have written, although none of them sold anywhere near enough to generate a livable income. That never happened.
I don’t know what it would take to make a living as a writer these days. Hardly anyone reads anymore. And when they do, they read dreck like Fifty Shades Of Grey or The Da Vinci Code. How does anyone manage to write those books? I would if I could. I’m a total whore.
I’m also a junky. I’m addicted to words. I love language. I’d learn as many languages as I could if I had a brain that would cooperate with that project. So far my focus has been French. And I must say I do love French.
I strongly suspect that it is my passion for language and abandonment to words and various linguistic ecstasies that prevent me from writing the next Fifty Shades of Grey or the next Twilight series.
The very wordiness of the above sentence is a dead giveaway. When it comes to prolixity, I am a Ford motor plant.
I’m a shameless cornucopia.
I enjoy frequent linguistic orgies at my grandmother’s old desk, which is a strange thing to have in one’s brain, but there it is, the weird incongruity of my impulse to write wild, orgiastic prose on the surface of a desk that where brief, Spartan descriptions of milking cows on bitter 4:00 a.m. mornings occurred.
You know those musty attics stuffed with old clothing and toys and National Geographics? That’s my brain.
The dead amaze me. Tom Raworth, David Bowie, John Lennon, David Springmeyer, Janis Joplin, my grandmother, my father, John Byrne, Ted Joans, Philip Lamantia, my old cat Toby, all had strong, vivid personalities and full lives and now they’re gone, completely gone, so completely gone I can’t comprehend it, and I will one day be joining them.
Darkness and sympathy are interwoven and slow and that’s the way they should be. Faithful in remembering and listening and hearing and experienced in hot water and marriage and believing in helping someone to forget themselves.
I keep biting my tongue. I eat too fast. That’s the problem.
Any day can be singing a movement of a little water when the head is everywhere a head should be and cause a description to conclude in food.
Thought is just a distraction. Thoughts come, thoughts go. Words become a luxury, an exuberance. What we think of as thought is all that is there in the mind at the moment that it’s in the mind but what’s a mind and, more importantly, where is a mind? If I think of thoughts as clouds that would imply that the mind is a sky. The sky itself has no location. At what point can one say that one is in the sky? At what altitude? There are phenomena that cannot be described as crowbars or soap.
Leibniz proposed the mind as a machine, not to explain the workings of the mind, but to demonstrate the absurdity of explaining it in materialistic terms:

One is obliged to admit that perception and what depends upon it is inexplicable on mechanical principles, that is, by figures and motions. In imagining that there is a machine whose construction would enable it to think, to sense, and to have perception, one could conceive it enlarged while retaining the same proportions, so that one could enter into it, just like into a windmill. Supposing this, one should, when visiting within it, find only parts pushing one another, and never anything by which to explain a perception. Thus it is in the simple substance, and not in the composite or in the machine, that one must look for perception.

Neuroscientists say that intelligence is really about dealing with uncertainty and infinite possibilities. The human brain has about 86 billion neurons and that each neuron can have tens of thousands of synapses, which puts potential connections and communications between neurons into the trillions. They also say the brain may operate on an amazingly simple mathematical logic. I find that depressingly reductive. Whenever the quantitative gets involved things become confining and granite. I like granite. But I like it more as a mountain than a wall. Blake said that the body is a prison and the senses are the chief inlets of the soul. There are limits to our senses. The mind itself is capable of far greater visions. Math does not enter into it, other than as a snake biting its own tail, or a geometric parameter: “Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.” “Energy is Eternal Delight.”
Can one be well in a world that is turning evil? The images of Aleppo are shocking. It is nothing but rubble. The United States is now engaged in endless war. Every time I see an image of Trump, I become nauseous. His smugness, vulgarity and obesity represent everything that is predatory, bullying and destructive. And now he’s the leader of arguably the world’s greatest military power.
My grandmother’s desk is a place of refuge. It’s stern dark wood is a sanctuary. When I pull the flap down and put a book on it, it becomes dulcet in study.

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