We gathered in a circle, some of us in chairs, others of us on blankets, on a sunny afternoon, celebrating a friend’s 40th birthday. It’s a lovely day — quality time with friends, all of us pleased to be together, laughing, telling stories, sharing observations and enthusiasms. Afterwards, I reflect upon Allen Ginsberg’s centering of Carrie Nation in the midst of the vortex in his antiwar poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” Nation was a temperance zealot. She ran around cities like Wichita attacking alcohol-serving establishments with a hatchet in the decades prior to Prohibition. I recall there being a straightedge band named after her in the 1990s, as well as a fictional band in Russ Meyer’s 1970 film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Is Ginsberg suggesting that Prohibition birthed Vietnam? What is a vortex? In his 1914 essay “Vortex,” modernist poet Ezra Pound described the latter as “the point of maximum energy.” But of course, Pound was a fascist. Is his essay one we need to read to understand Ginsberg? It’s a modernist manifesto, one that launched the short-lived movement known as Vorticism. (British fascist Wyndham Lewis is the other major figure linked with the movement.) Pound was obsessed with “race” and “race-memory” and attacked hedonism. Yet he’s widely considered one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century. The “Vortex” essay ends with a quote from Pound’s lover and contemporary, the modernist poet H.D. The latter is a curious figure, for sure. H.D. experienced “visions,” sought treatment from Sigmund Freud, and dabbled in the occult. For further discussion of H.D.’s interest in the latter, see Matte Robinson’s book The Astral H.D.: Occult and Religious Sources and Contexts for H.D.’s Poetry and Prose.
Hope is not merely a belief — it’s a narrative practice, a performance, a lived orientation toward being. There is much to do. How shall we do it? Converse with everyone; visit and receive visits; canvas; rally. Read and discuss books with others. Sing songs, shake rattles and tambourines.
A beautiful afternoon — a time to celebrate after several days of rain. Though even those have been wonderful: F. sleeping in my lap, or with her head resting on my shoulder. Sarah writing thank yous as friends and family visit us, bestow gifts on us, and feed us, local friends and colleagues having established for us a meal train. A circle of giving. Freedom is ours when we join and grow these circles of reciprocity. Extend the giving outward through the polis and the cosmos. Support the Sanders bid for the presidency. Make the vote count. Correct the outcome of 1972. Participate, too, in the antiwar movement. Make its number swell.
Sarah and her sister converse in the next room after a joyful afternoon. Friends threw us a “Brand New Human” party, a baby shower. We’ve got some sweet people in our lives, thoughtful, caring, all of them happy to celebrate with us the start of this next phase of being.
Now that students have submitted written responses, my days feel crowded with text, words greeting me everywhere I look. Friends entertained Sarah and I last night by suggesting outlandish names for our daughter. Other friends from Chicago sent a beautiful art book modeled upon the Whole Earth Catalog (a publication about which I’ve written at great length, in many ways dear to my heart, expressive of my utopian and eupsychian ambitions), designed by one of their students. Unbuckled is the mail. I walk the neighborhood during magic hour, photographing spider flowers and clematis.
A bird sings to me, other birds and I chuckling in reply. This bird is a dear friend. I admire him for his zest and energy, his cheer, his radical tenderness, his sense of humor, his positive energy, his knowledge born — well, you get the picture. This friend inspires me. Perhaps I can dedicate myself to the craft of fiction. Sarah waves the crackers toward me: “More?” “I would keep eating them,” I answer, pulled in several directions at once. I must build a problem and then use the act of writing to solve it, as if I were opening a box filled with Easter candy.
I’ll be revisiting old friendships this weekend — high school friends, some of whom I haven’t seen or spoken to in decades. How might I best characterize myself for them? By what terms might I achieve peace with these brethren, unburdened of unspoken rivalries? In the past, I may have been wounded and wronged by these friends, just as I may have wounded and wronged them in return. Yet as Laura Archera Huxley counsels in her book You Are Not The Target, “each one of us has a function to fulfill. It is when we spend our time and energy looking down in contempt or looking up with sterile longing that we lose sight of this function. Envy is comparison. He who is in the continuous process of being and becoming what he really is, directs his attention to real values, not to measuring other people’s achievements” (240). What I’m suffering is what Ralph McTell calls the “Zimmerman Blues.”
I traveled far from home, lost touch, saddled myself with unrepayable debt — but amid this impoverished wandering, I followed my heart, I found my partner, I learned how to love. Freedom outside in the sun of the prison yard. The country is not one where each person owns or gets enough on which to live. The fault for that lies with the country, not me. Were it otherwise, each could attend to the beauty and the glory of the earth. In the meantime, I break away as much as I can from “compulsions, ambitions, hates, vanities, envies”; I try to conduct myself day by day as a whole being.
Were I to lack the opportunity to escape a pseudo-totality, were I hemmed in by a false world-picture, I would nonetheless devote myself to peering beyond it. I would gaze out a small rectangular window near the ceiling of my cell. I would perform under the expectation that my performance could be rewound and fastforwarded at some later date. And everywhere around me, I would imagine signs left for me by a benign deity. I would suddenly find myself super high at a party in a basement among friends. I might worry for a moment about my heartbeat, an anomalous rapid fluttering in my chest. “At what point should I start to feel concerned,” I might wonder as the owner of the basement DJs for the group, lays the mood with some Junior Murvin.
Friends and I agree: “Drink or Treat” ought to be a new local holiday. Street parties. Radical hospitality. This is where one would situate a utopian novel. Here we come wassailing the neighbors; friends perform the role of hallelujah choir. Bring horns, bring dope, bring whatever. In our communist utopia, we’ll build trolleys running us house to house. In summer, we’ll pitch tents. Sometimes we’ll dance in windows. I’ll share with others the story of a time from my past when the Real intervened and posed for me a situation analogous to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. I appear to myself as a drunken flâneur, wandering among the wires the city has strung among its towers, dedicated to something dangerous. In the event, I tell the others, the potential for tragedy subdued the Faust in me and caused me to flee. “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” suggests a friend. “Magda Szabo’s The Door,” suggests another. Alas, I am too narrow an instrument to gauge much of reality. But I welcome and appreciate the help of friends. It is one of the ways the world responds, leaves signs, invites study. In this case, it tells me I am but an individual with my own distinct subjective response to particular chemicals. Even if I could wake tomorrow morning to a “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” kind of universe, I would still be too ordinary and too weird in my particulars to represent for others some “new communist subject” of the future. Representatives of that sort need not exist in such a universe.
Voices from my inner cast of characters tell me I’m living a depressingly subdued existence. Hush, we don’t use that word, they say. We’ve just got something on our mind. Green, orange, and streetlight-yellow balls of light flash across my field of vision. Do others all have their own peak experiences? Or are they too absorbed in neoliberal pastimes like compartmentalization and time management? I ponder these questions during a brief respite from the demands of the nine to five. I imagine myself reconstituted as a child again, lying on my stomach on the floor of a room, playing with a set of anonymous, faceless action figures. I don’t care about job security or the rest of it. My path is my path no matter what. Rushing to dinner with friends last night, Sarah and I talked about bars in our neighborhood and marveled at massive yellow-and-green-lined leaves of plants in neighbors’ gardens.
Sarah used to be (and to some extent remains) a race walker, so I permanently trail behind her whenever we make our way along what a friend of ours calls “the upside-down cone of uncertainty.” A vague discomfort in my sinuses. Friends were all supportive as a fellow instructor and I explained to them the crisis we’re facing at work. When I asked them how they accounted for the way everything was all of a sudden turning to shit synchronistically, all at once (by which I mean job cuts, friends’ cars breaking down, all of us sick with colds or the flu, another university in town accepting the poisoned chalice of strings-attached funding from the Koch brothers, hurricanes, wildfires, the Trump administration’s decision to rescind DACA, the threat of nuclear war), everyone laughed and nodded: ha ha, point well taken, apocalypticism FTW. But part of me had also asked the question in earnest. Are the usually semi-autonomous levels of the totality collapsing together now, base and superstructure merged through crisis into a form resembling an infinite regression of homologies for Trump’s America? As the National Enquirer used to say, “Enquiring minds want to know.”