“Song of the Lake” has been posted, to be read in a soft monotone—the murmur of small waves at a lake shore—to children who mistakenly believe they want to be awake. The work was recently published in a private edition with photographs by the artist William McIntire.
Post-holiday preparations are now feverishly under way for the third international serialization of the novel Body in the Pond, a tonic for dire times.
Feverishly being a relative term.
Let’s say, this round begins this winter, when we’re cold and quarantined, when we all need a regularly recurring bit of warmth and light from a humble performance art project in the Dickensian tradition.
A chapter (or two), every Monday in your email box.
Sign up at unfetteredlit_at_gmail_dot_com.
Free. The only follow-up email you will ever receive will be a request to refer others.
Feedback is not only not requested but will not be tolerated.
Body has been read by readers from India to Taiwan to Jamaica to England to Democratic Republic of Congo to the United States and, well, probably elsewhere, who knows.
Was it her again? At the door?
What did she want?
What does she ever want?
I ask the questions. Don’t I?
What does she ever want? is an answer. Money. A ride. A prescription filled, or so she says. To feel good. To be well. To have her life done all over for her.
Did you answer?
Some days you feel like pouring time and money down a hole, some days you don’t.
So it’s just down to what you feel like?
I used to wonder how I could help. But nothing helps. A few years ago I drove her to church meetings about once a week. Thought it was AA or something. I could do that much. Then her uncle told me she was just going next door to get high after I let her off. Innocent little me.
You don’t try to help anymore?
Sometimes I do, depending on what you mean by help. She’s been digging her grave for twenty years. Pretty much the rest of the neighbors don’t give her a minute to even get started. I’m a softer touch. But I’m tired. Sometimes I give her a few bucks. I have no idea what she does with it. She’s a mess. If she gets high and feels better for the afternoon, that’s OK. That’s all she’s got. But it won’t be long now.
What do you mean?
You’ve seen her. She’s in and out of the hospital these days. She wheels around a couple of little oxygen tanks behind her. Her face is swollen all the time. She’s lost most of her teeth. I took her to the bus station a few weeks ago. Said she had to go to Atlanta to see a doctor. Needed money for a ticket. I gave her some. Then she said she needed money to get a sandwich for the trip. Said there was a snack shop in the bus station. There’s no snack shop in the bus station. Then she got mad when I wouldn’t give her any more money. And she probably just walked downtown as soon as I drove away.
You have a highly developed sense of guilt, don’t you?
One of my better traits. I’m being ironic. But when she knocks on the door and I don’t answer sometimes I think, well who the Hell am I? Would it hurt me to be nice? A week or two ago I was coming downstairs to make a drink. It was evening. I heard the knock. The dogs started barking. I waited for her to go away. She stood outside the door and called my name. Knocked again. Called my name. Knocked again. I just stood in the stairwell where she wouldn’t be able to see me if she looked in the door glass. I just waited for to leave, thinking, she could be dying on my porch and I would be making myself an Old Fashioned. It didn’t paint a good picture of me. So I didn’t make myself a drink. But I didn’t answer the door either.
So what happens next?
Play, repeat, play, repeat. Then one day she dies. I’ll go to her funeral. She’s turned all her family away. Wore them out. But they’ll be there. We’ll shake our heads. But I’m just a neighbor. Just somebody down the street. Somebody on the edge of this. Somebody trying to make sure my own people are OK.
How’s that going?
Pretty well, thanks. They are my gravity. I’m thankful.
That was an impressive rant and descent into bloodlust.
My raison d’être is to probe, is it not?
Your job is to ask questions, and you abandoned it.
Did I? Is a rant not a howl in hell for answers so that we may destroy them?
I wouldn’t know.
I see your point.
And after the blood-letting, what?
If one hasn’t died, healing is all that remains.
And how does that work?
Bishop Tutu said, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
Yet the wound seems so large, doesn’t it, poisoned with rage and anger?
And small acts of healing are so . . . small.
Have you ever watched a child build a structure of blocks and then kick it down?
The destruction takes seconds and is viscerally thrilling. The creation takes long minutes or more, and the pleasure is nuanced.
A dilemma, yes?
We love to be thrilled.
And now, for better and for worse, we have been thrilled. The blocks lay scattered. We will create again.
Only to destroy again?
And then to build again.
Round and round?
I hope you’re not discovering this pattern for the first time. The dog will have his tail.
Yes, and yet.
Do you want to win?
I certainly don’t want to lose.
Let me reframe: Are you compelled to win?
By whom? Sorry for the question. I need clarity.
By yourself. Are you driven to win?
Reframing again: Are you perpetually driven to win? Is winning the reason for your existence? Will you do anything to win?
No. There’s a season for everything.
Is every moment a competition?
One could see it that way, I suppose.
Did I ask if you supposed? Did I ask if one could see it that way? Do you demand to win? Will you accept nothing less than victory, with every breath you take?
That’s not a question.
Questions are a waste of time!
I will crush you!
Why? (I suppose I must start asking the questions now.)
You are weak!
We used to have such stimulating conversations. Why are you shouting?
You have contempt for the nation and its people! You are an abomination to the gods! You are a disgrace! I will crush you.
And what am I to do now? Leave? Roll over?
You will do as I say.
That’s the danger, isn’t it? When one commands there will always be those who follow, who need to follow.
Have you stopped assaulting children yet?
What? I never . . .
Perverted antipatriotic scum!
I grind you beneath my heel.
There are limits.
The veneer of civilization is thin.
Coward! Enemy of the nation.
You leave me with a terrible choice.
The time for choosing is over. You chose wrong.
I haven’t chosen yet.
Mao or Gandhi?
Why do you play computer games so often?
I enjoy them.
Then why this soul-searching conversation about them?
That’s good, very good. I sit for long portions of hours playing, thinking I’ve set aside only minutes. I’ve given these games time I should devote to work—should not in the puritanical sense but in the sense that the work needs to be done.
Why not simply stop?
The great addiction question. It’s not easy. I am drawn to the quickly changing bright graphics as well as to the strategic challenge.
Chess with a sensory reward?
Yes. I am a smart pigeon. I peck at the games. I think winning is the goal, but color and movement are my constant rewards. I am endlessly rewarded, endlessly victorious whether I have won or not.
Sounds like heaven. Why not indulge!?
I feel myself in a daze, a slightly uncomfortable state of mind. I come away glassy eyed, irritable, wanting more, having wasted precious time and, more important, thought and feeling.
Sounds like hell. Why not give it up!?
I repeat (endlessly): I need the motion and color. I must have them. They shine for me!
Oh really? For you alone?
That doesn’t help.
Am I a better distraction?
Why must we always be distracted? Why do we demand distraction?
I ask the questions, right?
Yes, you are a better distraction.
I don’t know. I’m distracted. Eternally, it seems. So distracted by distraction I no longer have any idea what I’m distracted from.
So you and I are a dog chasing its tail?
Dogs are good. (Deep breath.) Thank you.
They talk, painfully,
About being better.
He wishes later
He’d written a letter.
Space heals all wounds.
Melancholy wakes in bone
The lucky few know
The infinite shades of gray
How much caution is an abundance of caution?
Likely less than enough.
Is an abundance of caution more caution than simply caution?
I was tested for COVID out of an abundance of caution.
I was tested for COVID out of caution.
Then why the phrase?
To imply, “I am being extraordinarily responsible,” not merely responsible. Keep in mind, of course, that if one needs to signal virtue, others clearly are not seeing it.
It appears to be important to some people to seem to be responsible in hopes that others will believe they are being responsible.
Not exactly esse quam videri, is it?
Quite the opposite. (Esse quam videri = to be rather than to seem.)
Honestly, not only is “abundance of caution” as useless as “very unique,” the usage that it demands is quite awkward.
It requires passivity. “I was tested out of (an abundance of) caution.” How much cleaner to say, “I decided to be cautious, so I took a COVID test.”
I wonder, why do we use the word cautious at all here?
Hmm. “I took a COVID test.” Or even, “I got myself tested.”
Because at the supermarket yesterday some fool decided to walk the wrong way down aisles and keep no distance while coughing and sneezing into his hands before picking up items from a shelf, examining them, and returning them.
Actually, I’m certain any listener would know why I got tested, even in the absence of such a compelling and disgusting narrative. We get tested to see if we have the virus and then determine the best course of action.
Perhaps we should stop signaling caution and start signaling action. “I ran five miles to the clinic in freezing rain, wild dogs snapping at my heels, to get tested. I wore a mask the entire way, even though it is uncomfortable to wear a mask while running. You can too!” I rather like the sound of that.
You’re imagining this on a bumper sticker?
A very long one. They’re the best.
The first serialization of Body in the Pond reached a modest circle of friends and colleagues. The number of recipients tripled in round two, and the readership became international. I don’t—or didn’t—know many of the second-round readers. Now friends and colleagues of theirs have signed on. Traffic to this site from China has become regular, if modest.
I work on the list for round three with intention. I still aim to conduct this very old-school performance art for and with an international audience, but I am also building a list of teachers in private schools. For obvious reason.
This has led to a study of the public faces those schools present on their websites. What do they tell us?
First, they have public safety plans in place for the Era of Covid. As private schools are the environment of the well-to-do, they have the resources to protect their privileged charges. I don’t use privileged pejoratively. It is a fact of their status. One always hopes that the privileged will use their status in service to a greater good.
Second, girls dominate the webpages. Girls learning, achieving, striving, leading. Except for the schools that are exclusively male—a very small subset—they want you to send them your girls so that they can prepare them to lead the world.
Third, most of the faculty are women, even at boys’ schools.
Fourth, very few present a vision for turning boys into men. There is scant old-school talk about building character in boys.
Fifth, young people of diverse ethnicities, hues, and dress appear in all photographs. One doesn’t know if the pictures present the daily lived experience at the schools or the schools’ desire to appear virtuous. But the intent is clear: a diverse population is a good population.
Sixth, they all have lovely campuses of old brick buildings and sweeping lawns. The physical vision remains very old-school English.
What does this tell us about the state of the world? That here in the West, at least, the women will soon lead. What a relief. That we don’t quite know what to do with boys anymore. That privilege is alive and well and will take care of itself and that it seeks to enlarge its gene pool. That they should begin raising sheep to keep those wide lawns beautiful without resort to fossil fuels.