I’m floored by how affected I am by listening to the newest installment of podcast brilliance (“S-Town“) by the folks who did “Serial.” I listened to “Serial” as I drove to and from a less than exciting semester of classes – I spent a lot of time driving that semester, I was somewhat unhappy about various things (not just work), and so I spent a lot of time attempting to soothe myself through the use of enormous amounts of junk food. “Serial” was a great distractor – I was less interested in stopping for donuts on the way home when I was able to listen to a new episode and see whether or not there was actually a pay phone in the entrance of that Best Buy or not.
But the compulsion I felt to find out more and more about the killing of Hae Min Lee is mere curiosity compared with the impossibility of putting down the tale of John B. McLemore and his incredibly precise rants, his brilliantly described disgust, and his kindness to others (or is it masochism? By the end, I wasn’t sure which it was, honestly). I know more about clocks now, I have been reminded of the young men I knew who sounded just like John (although stupid – always stupid, never brilliant like him), and I’m not sure what world I inhabit now. I am familiar with John’s world, in that I live in the South and I found John’s accent and cadence of speaking to be both insanely over the top but simultaneously familar, nostalgic and thus rather soothing. Even during his most epic rant, I felt I was on fairly familiar ground, but it was ground that felt familiar the way a dream feels familiar if you have it more than once – sort of ephemerally familiar if that makes any sense at all.
The gothic quality of this story is familiar to any of us who have grown up in the South, with a stereotypically southern upbringing. While I didn’t have an Uncle Jimmy to act as my hype man, we all have at least one slightly eccentric or somewhat damaged relative who can cause public outings to be a little awkward or embarrassing. I didn’t have an extended family myself, but I sure did adopt a family or two that wasn’t my own. And each of them had an Uncle Jimmy or a close facsimile thereto.
And truly, I felt about as Faulknerian as it is possible to feel (at least whilst also being sober) when I visited a family cemetery where numerous relatives were buried, as was my grandaddy’s right arm. Not all of him, mind, just his arm. I sent a picture of the headstone (armstone?) to my sister, who at the time happened to be visiting with one of our family’s adopted members – funny how that seems to be a thread among certain types of families. I wondered when Col. Sartoris was going to show up and beat me for being giddy in a graveyard.
S-Town is a live-action Flannery O’Connor tale, if she and Faulkner ever had a Frankensteinian love child. It’s haunting, and sad, and it’s so very human.
So the past few days have sort of been a blur of…well, rain and video games. The combination of the release of the newest DLC for Fallout 4 with some pretty steady rain has led me to grow roots and get stuck in the sofa with a controller in my hand. I haven’t run with Straxi in days, but that will change soon, hopefully today, honestly, because I have it in my head that we are going to go exploring here, and the rain has held us off from that for quite long enough, thank you.
I had forgotten the trails on campus – or at least I had figured they had fallen victim to the constant and ongoing construction that seems to plague all of NC, even tiny Davidson. When I was a kid (and by “kid” I mean teenager – maybe 14 or so – certainly no older, because by 15 I was out of the house, smoking, and living a decidedly not-healthy lifestyle), I ran semi-regularly, and I biked as well. I remember this time as being predominantly exploration – basically what I do in video games, but in real life. I would jump on my bike, or put on my shoes (we didn’t have running shoes back then, per se, we were limited to tying rocks to our feet with canvas rope, yes, I’m that old). I think I mostly explored the campus and the town because I was bored? Because I didn’t want to be at home? Because I didn’t want to do homework? Not sure. But I went out and explored not from any desire to be “fit” or to improve my 5k splits or anything crazy like that. I did it just because. This seems like the best reason to do that sort of thing, honestly. I just felt like it.
Occasionally, I took Trixie with me – my first canine running companion, albeit with only three legs, and much shorter than Straxi, but not often. When I went out in the early morning to run, I would let her run with me without a leash, which I thought was awesome, but now it’s impossible. Straxi would be jam in no time flat, and back then, there was literally one traffic light in town and really no need for that, to be honest.
But the trails were something I thought I had discovered, and I felt like they were mine. I stumbled upon them one day out running (which in retrospect is surprising, because that would have been a long distance for me to run, but I guess I really did run a lot, now that I really think on it). I wasn’t running with Trixie, or riding my bike, or listening to music (this was pre-Walkman days, remember). Davidson College had some huge fields on the outskirts of campus, and I wound up there one afternoon. I didn’t plan my runs – I just went. If I saw something interesting at the next turn, I would go that way. If I saw something scary at the next turn, I went the opposite way. Basically, I just sort of wandered. To a certain extent, I still do that. I have a general idea where I want to go when I head out, and I know what’s a good route to hit if I have Straxi with me or not – I want her to enjoy running with me, and I want us both to be safe, and so our main road is one we want to stay off of. The drivers in this town are downright dangerous and our road has begun to be noisier than I-77, not to mention busier and faster, too.
But none of this was an issue when I ran as a kid. I just ran to run, and to see. I was so incredibly lucky to grow up here, and be able to return to here, and see so much of this town utterly unchanged (and, like the danger of the streets, unfortunately some of it really HAS changed, and drastically, for the worse).
I stumbled onto the trails late one afternoon when I was exploring the big fields behind the college. Maybe I meant to run laps around the fields, or maybe I just meant to run through them, but either way, I remember seeing a path – unmarked – leading into the woods. And yes, they legit were woods at that point, not just a little bit of trees or a bit of park. Of course, I could not leave this unexplored. Just like with my gaming habits, I want to see what’s over that next ridge in the game, or in this case, off the edge of the field.
So into the woods I went. I had no idea where I was. I had no cell phone or GPS (these were the dark days before science, and we all still thought the world was flat, since we couldn’t post photos to Facebook of what we were doing at that exact moment and hope for comments and approval from friends…we lived in scary times, indeed). I would be lying if I said I didn’t get a bit nervous at times during the run – when I say I didn’t know where I was, I mean I truly had moments when all I could do was trust in the trail, knowing that eventually it would end up SOMEWHERE, and I could navigate from that. The somewhere it wound up was a very old, very run down, very wooded cemetery (I later was told that this was a cemetery only for people of color, and I don’t know if this is true, but it certainly would make sense, in that it was small and off the beaten path. Can’t have the help going to their eternal rest with the gentry, after all).
I came out of the woods into this extremely peaceful, beautiful, serene area, and was simultaneously creeped out and intrigued. A cemetery not attached to a church? This was unusual to me – all cemeteries were behind/beside/around churches, in my experience (granted, at that point, what experience I had had was oh, so incredibly limited), so I had to wonder where the church was, what had happened to it, why was this burial area so hidden away?
I understand the politics (or at least, I’m trying to) surrounding the racially based treatment that went on and continues to go on in the South, even as I continue to be surprised at how normal it was to me to grow up next to a cemetery that boasted CSA dead, as I attended a church with a massive monument to the Confederate soldiers and army. I do manage to maintain a fog of “that’s just how things are” that allows me to avoid some of the ugliness of life, honestly, and I know what a huge, enormous, offensive amount of privilege that is. Sometimes I feel like I should be swanning about with a parasol, bathing my skin in buttermilk and eating massive amounts of ham and biscuits before I go to any sort of social gathering so as to be able to avoid gobbling like a hog in front of the gentlemenfolk.
I don’t know if I spent a whole lot more time on the trails surrounding the college after I discovered them – I know that I returned to them a few times, at least, but I also know that my time for unfocused, unintentional discovery was running out at that point (I didn’t know it then – see above paragraph re swanning about). I hope that this summer break allows me the time and freedom to be creative without boundaries, and to take pictures, and write, and stumble across areas I had forgotten or never appreciated in the past.
I’m continuing my reading and working with Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I’m finding it helpful for me, as a writer (how weird is it to apply that title to myself, even though that’s what I am, and have always been), but also I’m trying to see it through the lens that my students might use. I know that they struggle – as do I – in finding ways to make their writing work for them, and to make it do the things that they plan or envision. Where I think we differ is that I already trust the process, and know that if I keep doing what I’m doing, I’m going to get at least a reasonably decent bit of writing out of this exercise, eventually. They don’t have the experience with writing that I do (obviously – that’s what school is for, after all), and my job is to (among other things) offer them opportunities to engage with the process, and develop that trust.
That’s a big part of what Goldberg is discussing when she talks about “composting,” because basically, you’re getting out there and working in the dirt, and not seeing any real improvement, you’re just poking around in the soil. That’s what composting is – it’s bringing air to garbage, bringing important bits together like a recipe, even if you don’t quite see how that’s going to be any good at all later.
Goldberg reminds us that this sort of work takes time, and she offers us a definition of that work as “composting” when she writes that our “senses by themselves are dumb. They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies. I call this ‘composting’” (15). Trying to write about something before it’s been fully composted is going to get you a bunch of…well, garbage. I tried to write about some life experiences that I knew were important, and that I knew could be useful to other people in my situation, and it was just flat. The words were “thrown-out egg shells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones” without the opportunity that I was able to give myself to think on the whole thing (15).
Obviously, it’s not possible to compost things for your writing only after the experience is done. Some things are things that don’t ever end – you can’t wait to write about them until you’ve navigated the entirety of the experience because that will never happen. The experience continues throughout your life, and at no point will you have time to compost it in its entirety – we do eventually run out the clock, after all. But we can compost the various bits of it, and I think that for me this is important to do. I’ve got to work on seeing My Story as discrete parts that make up the larger whole, but ultimately, it’s not ever going to be done, even when, according to the world, the laws, the people around me, it should no longer affect me. So I can’t compost the whole thing – I can’t save up all the bits forever. If I tried to do that, I’m afraid that I’d wind up hauling this garbage around with me forever, and part of my intention in actually telling My Story is to unload all these damn egg shells, coffee grounds, and smelly garbage.
Another important aspect of the concept of composting is that it answers a concern I have had myself, and have encountered in much of the academic discussion of personal writing: it’s just damn navel gazing, and what good comes of that in academic work? Goldberg addresses that nicely when she writes that her students who are clearly composting “are raking their minds and taking their shallow thinking and turning it over. If we continue to work with this raw matter, it will draw us deeper and deeper into our selves, but not in a neurotic way. We will begin to see the rich garden we have inside us and use that for writing” (16). I see part of my job with my students to be introducing them to new tools they can use in their lives to help them navigate tough decisions, and to help them think in my complex, nuanced ways. Writing helps us to do that, and our first and best area of consideration (we can’t help it, as humans) is always ourselves. I have worried myself that the writing I have my students do is too fluffy for academic vigor, and that it’s not working the muscles they need to develop enough, but Goldberg has connected the dots here for me in a way that I had not considered previously.
Finally, I have to comment about the visual with this page. As you can imagine, if you Google image search for compost, you will get scads of pictures of piles of dirt. You’ll also gets lots of photos of dirt with hands either IN the dirt, or offering the dirt to the viewer. I had to scroll WAAAAAY too far down the page to find a set of brown hands. My privilege astounds me sometimes, and really pisses me off a lot.