Walking by Flashlight (or, Where I’m From)
by Wm. Anthony Connolly
What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.
During certain months, where I’m from the sun doesn’t set until nearly ten. The light slowly begins to drain at the bottom of the eighth hour; not something I’m used to now that I’ve lived in the south since 1997 – lights out at eight-thirty. It surprised me in a way that made me look at time differently, as if the past was lengthened and the present somehow shortened. This had been my childhood proving ground, and I was no longer the person it wrought. I was with two friends; we drove around town in this waning, beatific, hazy light checking out the sights. As we exited town to circle it and enter it anew, each holding cups of hot coffee, the prairies resembled a weed filled sea; and a single massive cloud arose from the gloaming like a giant’s hand from the swaying threads borne of broad, yet gentle winds and adagio susurant rain. The setting sun, like the eye of God, was behind it.
Brain cells have electrical properties that tell us when they are and are not active.
I met my two friends at a local lounge – T and L, old chums from high school days. It dawned on me quickly that of my generation, my friends, men leave their hometowns and women do not. There were no guys I’d gone to high school with, partied with, left in town, but there were girls. I was somewhat close to L, but not close to T much at all. Just the way things went, different circles. It’s not a big town, my hometown, but it does a good job of creating circles, and you were either in or out of them.
The organization of the brain can be fundamentally altered by experience. Experience includes not only external events, but also internal events such as the actions of hormones, the effects of injury, the relentless effects of development and aging, and even thoughts.
We’re Facebook friends now, and perhaps that’s why there existed a kinship between us, palpable and encouraged, after all our experiences together made for get Wall fodder. We sat in the nondescript lounge for an hour, none of us drinking when T suggested we take a drive around town. At a certain age, albeit a short window, growing up in small towns you’re too old to tour around on your ten-speed, and too young to slink into a local bar to get drunk, dance and take someone home. That window is endured by driving; we called it cruising. We cruised from the east end of town to the west, turned around, and repeated the journey. In between we’d find out about parties, hook up with random people or set off for sorties either north or south of town. The drive was a search for what we didn’t know what to look for. It’s repetition implanted upon the brain patterns of traffic, of sexuality, of sites seen and how they configured into the sojourn’s magical properties. The streets of my hometown were the Internet, the car its search engine. Our curiosity, our desires, chest-thrumming cursors. We Googled our way through our memories and visited the real townscape before us.
Imagine the problem of learning a completely new skill, such as juggling while perched on a unicycle. Initially one is totally inept, but with practice at least some people can master the task.
Theater director Peter Brook writing in his 1993 book on theater craft The Open Door offers an interesting exercise. Ask any volunteer to cross a space. Just walk from point A to point B. No problem. Then Brook complicates the task by adding an element: a bowl. The person is to imagine, act out, carrying a valuable bowl in their hands and they walk across the same space. Next, the person is asked to imagine while walking, and holding the bowl to act out that the bowl comes loose and slips from their hands and crashes to the ground. The first couple of tasks can be carried off without too much trouble, writes Brook, not so the third. It’s the last one when one becomes self-conscious, when it becomes clear that most display “the worst kind of artificial, amateur acting.” It takes over the body this bad acting, this “woefully unreal” display. And the gig is up, so to speak. The actor knows. So does the audience. While not entirely similar, I find similarities between this scenario of bad acting and my own bad faith as a being, my own self-consciousness; awareness of my illness; full blown existential angst of changing, of not knowing the full story, the narrative pattern of my own life. For a very long time I have found it entirely alien to be a human being in a social function or interaction. I couldn’t understand how I got where I was from where I’d been. I was so aware I was doing it I could not longer do it. I tried very hard to be Anthony Connolly, but there were times when people could see I’d dropped the bowl and had badly enacted the crashing artifice. Sorting this out, and unpacking all of the above, has lead me to read books about mental illness, about spines, about brains, about memory and selves. Often, I simply find myself walking through space thinking this through. In my hands is a precious bowl.
Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.
A few years ago when I lived away from where I was raised, far from the community and friends there, I was watching television. It was one of those news magazine shows. On this particular episode the news correspondent was investigating the safety record of an iron smelting plant and how it did or did not compensate spouses when loved ones were killed while on the job. This company melts iron or other raw metals you known the big drums that pour fiery goo of orange and black down from a massive kiln into funnels and chutes for cooling and further alchemy. The reporter was focusing on one employee in particular, a guy named E. Smedegaard – someone from my hometown, someone I went to school with, someone I rode ten-speed through the wildings of our youth; a guy I hung around with drinking beer and listening to AC/DC, a guy I played sports with – that E, that Smedegaard. It appears E was involved in an accident and something like 90% of his body was burned. The program showed a shot of E lying in the hospital bed trying to recover. He didn’t. I remember, begging E there on television in bed, him to recover, just get up, come on E I said to the television. Come on. But even by then he’d been dead for two years. But I carry a little bit of E with me to this day, and I always will. Once when playing ice hockey E charged my net; I was down on my knees the vulcanized rubber puck suspended in the dark night of frost crystals and white halogen light — and when a goalie does this the hockey pants ride up the let and the protective pads move down and under — and you’re exposed, clothed only in a woolen hockey sock that travels up your foot, your shin, over your knees to just past your thigh. The one-inch thick puck was somewhere spinning and E must have caught a piece of it through his thick eyeglasses; he used the blade of his stick to poke at it and instead of hitting the puck he missed and stabbed me just above my right knee. A sting registered along with the bite of cold. Later, I found that the skin was cut and to this day a small divot remains to remind me of E. Every once in a while I just slide my hand down and feel the skin give way. And I can see E. The darkness of playing hockey outside. The cold. The puck somewhere spinning. Come on. Come on.
There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or re-experienced whenever they are recollected.
Language is an awkward instrument. Too blunt in the tightening of your throat seeing a gravestone. Everyone’s. Doesn’t work for the beat and wonder of childhood hometown. Going through the town graveyard. Going by homes where once we danced. Heavy old names. And their new appendages. Lichen on broken angels. The story of a drunk who could no longer drive getting hit and killed while riding his bicycle. An ancient tree growing to the sound of wind allegro one into the other tree beside it. Recent history of Sasquatch sightings; the appearance of people known to have long gone reappearing, leading credence to legend and magic, the subterranean currents of where I’m from. The talk of the black man, that racist lawn ornament, that lives in infamy in an attic, in a house, unbeknownst to the owner of the house, placed there years ago when T was drunk and at a house party. We talked about friends. How he used to hit her. In the small house they played house. Made her wear a basket on her beautiful head. The froth of floodwaters still rioting horse hooves. How some had died. Fallen timber, rotten winter cracked roads.
Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.
Through the shadow-dappled brambles, over stumbling turf, clawed by men in yellow machines, a field once serving as a diamond, we made our journey slowly, until T said she’d be right back and L and I stood there briefly and slowly seeing in the absence of light that maybe we were too old for this. Soon T was back, a beam of light bouncing off the ground in front of her like a crazy laser sword and handed the light off to me, inexplicably. We walked then and I wanted to say aloud that Jaynes quote, the one about the flashlight I’d read many years ago lying in bed ill with a fever – light years between the last we’d played in this field and the now – about how, the flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere… But I was afraid of sounding like I was trying too hard, or that they might think I thought myself better than them. They knew me as a class clown, an actor, an athlete, the drunk cavalier, not as a writer; they were suspicious of my reasons for writing, seemingly; circling around me in body and mind as if orbiting some foreign form awaiting its fissure, its poisonous gas emission, its birth of slimy homunculus. Finally, the edifice in the distance, our old haunting ground a high school now closed and turned into a children’s school, stood so close we could smell its old red brick. It took some time, circumnavigating it and getting the faint whiff of fear out of our nostrils, but then there half obscured in a pyramid of darkness thrown by a ninety-degree edge, was my senior year, late-afternoon, English class window. Something I also didn’t say: Socrates thought the soul was like a wax tablet and that any experience we had was a signet ring. When we had an experience the ring impressed itself against the soul, the wax, and left an impression, but the impression would be all that remained, an absence of a former presence, and that memory was our need, our desire to fill it. We peered through the hazy window to the small desks in nearly-perfect rows, and down on the dirty winter white sill there: My Kilroy. “A.C. wuz.” My carving was on the other side of the glass, and yet I reached out to touch it, as if to finger it… even though it had long ago been swallowed by brush after brush of white Lethe. “English class with Walton…” came L. I nodded, “Look my initials. I wuz here.” And back we went, silently through the remainder of the night, where I’m from, walking by flashlight.
What can be said… Ludwig Wittgenstein
Brain cells have electrical properties… Bryan Kolb
The organization of the brain… ibid
Imagine the problem… ibid
Every life is many days… James Joyce
There is no way by which… Oliver Sacks
Memory is dialogic… Ibid
the flashlight, since… Julian Jaynes