Mortal Matters and Change

My husband was being a jerk all weekend, so I left to get some things at the store. When I arrived, a gentle older man sat crisscross-applesauce with a strange smile. I thought of how mean Jerry, my husband, had been that morning, and I started to smile like a smile could put a bit more happiness in the world to make up for all the jerks. I realized the older man was returning the smile I had on my face, and I said, how do you do? He said hello, and I turned to buy some candles for my mother’s birthday.

I felt like a real meanie for ignoring him. You know, just looking away from his smile. So I turned back to him. “No,” I said, “how are you. What has brought you to this place in the cold?” Yeah! So this is what I recall him saying.

Humans have done it, my dear. Humans and the love of . . . well, just humans. The sidewalk did but the sidewalk is less at fault. It was humans and not the sidewalk, if we need to make distinctions. Humans, because of the highly entertaining curse of self-awareness, can be a bit judgy. Some would say humans are arrogant.

Surely we are arrogant individually, you see. A human dressed in fine silks and polyester approached me the other day when I was begging for alms.

She said, “You should use your body to be useful and earn your money.”

I said, “Why is the money in your pocket yours and not mine?”

She responded, “For I have earned it though the sweat of my brow. You do nothing and expect reward.”

I showed her the sweat that had beaded on my forehead since our conversation had begun. “Verily, I have labored with you in this moment here in front of this well stocked Target superstore. Behold how I shiver with fear of your fine boots as I imagine them lodged in my ribs or deftly overturning my small collection plate with a swift kick.”

The woman in silk and polyester made a sour expression and turned away. As she walked away and through the automated, sliding doors, her piano scarf fluttered in the rush of heated air escaping from within. The warmth brushed against my cheek, and I was reminded of the cold in my bones as I sat cross-legged – just as I do before you now, young lady. It was clear to me that she was unmoved by my thinking. The woman felt my use of matter was of lesser quality than her use of the matter she had under her control. Was she arrogant? Perhaps. But I am not referring to individual arrogance. This is but a trickling stream by comparison to the bulging deluge of human hubris in judging collections of matter generally. In our hierarchy of beings.

How can we box existence into hierarchies? So arbitrary! So arrogant! Yet, there is a functional hierarchy of being that informs how much respect humans accord phenomena in the world.

Rocks can be stepped on and ground up without remorse.

Trees can be shredded and pulped without a lot of remorse.

Fish, chicken and cattle can be harvested and slaughtered without full remorse.

Monkeys and other non-food animals can be killed but, unless self-preservation is the purpose, dead monkeys deserve some remorse according to human standards.

Some wonderful idiots say eyes are the gateway to the soul. What they likely mean is that we can recognize an independent existence worthy of respect and privilege within the constellation of matter that has irised eyeballs. The evidence?! Ha! Animals with eye movements more like our own tend to be treated better. Humans more easily see them as peers in existence – if not equals. We can see how this standard of evaluating animal worth via the eyes manifests culturally in films and other fantasies that explain how “all dogs go to heaven.” Dead or cold eyes in robots indicate the failure of machines to reproduce humans faithfully. But eyes are only part of the picture. Eyes are the layman’s shortcut to the hierarchy of being!

Sir? Spare a dollar? No?

Anyway, this is the height of arrogance, some would argue. Pigs have said so. An octopus once did too, but he was a rare ocean-bound critic. Cephalopods have little experience with us for humanity’s foibles to be widely understood among them, but that octopus had some clever barbs! I wish I had written them down – but words are only one use of ink I’m sure that wily, many-armed bastard would remind me before jetting off into the murk.

He was right to leave me. I had no business in the worlds of deep water. Still, I wanted to defend us humans. We are just anxious about dying. We are “on edge” as they say. What edge? The edge of existence. A precipice of known and unknown. The sudden sense that we aren’t even on the edge anymore but falling. Falling but with no memory of what slippery cad threw us into this mysterious pit, the bottom of which we cannot see. “You’d be anxious too!” I wanted to yell at the retreating octopus.

My point is this: anxiety has a strange consequence for how we go about labeling the world and distinguishing the configurations of matter around us. That is why the trees call us “the Matter Prone to Worried Pondering.” Evergreens do, at least. Majestic palms call us “Something’s the Matter Matter.” Tropicals think they are funny. They are. I laugh every time I realize there is a banana in my mouth. One can’t have slaughter without a laugh!

Do you have a banana? No? Nevermind. We are talking about nervousness of knowing that there is an end of one’s consciousness. Right? Yes.

Our sense that something’s the matter drives us to strange, sometimes compulsive, behavior. Our obsession with hierarchy is an example.

Morally, we accord the tree more rights and privileges than the stone because it is living -as we define it. We despair at a child smashing a tree more so than that child smashing a stone. The tree has something to lose we can easily recognize: life. But what is life but matter organized into super-reactive form?

Spare a dollar? What? When you come out you will have one? Ok.

He won’t come out with the change he promised, but that is alright. That is alright.

Where was I? Where were you? Trees? Yes. Generally, we accord more privilege to the bird then we do the tree. Why? Trees are less discernibly reactive to the environment than the bird. Birds cease to move when chopped in half. The tree never moved at all, and its signs of life slowly disappear to human eyes. It reacts more slowly to the environment. Is this reason to prefer the tree’s matter be reconfigured than that of the birds?

I propose the thought experiment. Would we accord reactive plants a higher place in our ontologies if they were more often reactive? Sensitive plants or Venus Fly Traps? An easily offended fern?

But the world around us is just states of matter. Some more like us. Some less. Some are very mobile in how they use matter. Some sit in stony silence. Some as noisy as us. When you hit some with your favorite stick, they just take it and don’t respond. When you hit others, they run away or get grumpy.

And we would categorize them. “This one, a tree, just takes the axe blow until it falls down. This one is harder than the axe head and stands firm against the blade. This one coming out of Target sees the axe and runs the other way making baleful noises.” Good information for creating categories of matter in order to feel safer in a world that will ultimately kill you by re-configuring your state of matter.

The best part is that the world we fear so often, its sharp edges, the mugger, the violent spouse, it is just a continuation of us. It is almost as if it calls us to rejoin the so-called inert state of being. “Your reactivity is exhausting. Come back to us and be still.” But the ear is just a metaphor to matter. A device to hear itself. The revelation of spirit unto spirit? Hardly. Revelation of matter unto matter.

Of course, all this anxious pondering took place well before philosophers came up with words like ontology, Dasein, and other fancy phrases for ranking forms of matter. Across many independent cultures, these hierarchies all had a curious similarity: humans were at the top. Cuttlefish be damned!

Spare some change?

I admit it is a little cringy. Humans putting themselves at the top all the time? We can rationalize why. It was only natural that humans found themselves at the top of these efforts to catalog all of matter. By the time humans were creating and exchanging the relevant charts and graphs, we had appeared to conquer the big toothy cats and cephalopods alike.

More or less. We still get chewed up by bears occasionally, but we tend to blame ourselves if we meet misfortune at the hands of the “lesser” beings. A violent bear is unworthy of a declaration of war, for instance. We don’t hold one bear’s eviscerating overreaction to humans camping nearby as a premise to kill other bears that bear hung out with. We reserve that guilty-by-association reasoning for other humans. We stop their reactivity so our own reactivity will triumph! So OUR organization of matter, like deck chairs on the Titanic, will prevail.

So much matter! So many different types of matter! We must categorize. That is a tree. Very nice! Look beneath the tree. That shadow of muscle with its piercing eyes and, wait a moment. Yes, those are flesh-tearing teeth. That is a cat that will eat me. We can imagine them peering into the dark of night and declaring, “Let us distinguish these two forms of matter. Clearly doing so will be helpful.”

Thus primordial categorization surely sprang from the need to eat and not be eaten followed by questions about why we cannot stop matter from changing beneath our feet.

The earliest eyes in evolutionary terms were merely light sensing parts of sea life. It was useful to know where the sun was because that is where there was more plankton or algae or smaller sea life to eat. Darkness meant death. Light meant continued life.

So, as matter that is ever-revising itself into new compositions, we live. To continue living for whatever reason -to have children, to love each other, to eat good food, to watch every installment of the Transformers franchise-  we categorized the matter surrounding us to survive. To go on. To survive. To know Michael Bay’s cinematic moods more intimately . . .

We saw the variety of things in the world and became attentive to other forms of matter. We began the enterprise, like Adam in the garden, of cataloging all the stuff to forms of matter that were also in the business of living.

The more imaginative and self-deprecating cultures created an invisible topmost layer of gods, angels and demons who had helped us with our anxieties as we first began to grapple with loved ones having an expiration date. Gods at the top. Then some angels or other super-powered yet humanoid group with too many eyes or bird wings or vendettas against strong snakes. These below-god-above-humans types are often in obedience to the top of the Being Pyramids we construct in our anxious pondering of the world around us.

“Here is my mother. She is here at my feet by the fire but no longer there. Asleep forever. But I loved her interactivity! Where did they go? Can I meet them again? How can a person, so helpful and comforting -if occasionally a bit bossy- become just plain matter?”

Maybe the functional ontology of humanity is based on, first, the degrees of interactivity with the environment. And, second, the degree of interactivity with humans. Yes, all human moral judgment is based on either the appearance of life (like our own) and then the similarity of that appearance to our own experience of life. Both are based on the “degrees of interaction.”

The first degree of interaction is at the level of matter. All living things are, of course, collections of matter. Why matter seems to have worked itself up so much that it produced life is the biggest mystery and it need not detain us here.

We tend to value more highly and, hence, accord more rights to forms of matter that react to the environment. On this scale, “inanimate” and “animate” are the broadest binary categories. But we can see more fine-grained hierarchical differentiation in human assessment of the phenomenological world.

Stones and hammers, some say, have only being-in-themselves. These things do not interact with the world. Some would point out that they make no choices in the course of being. Slime molds and lichen react to the world, growing in favorable conditions and bending toward light as a food source, but these hardly constitute “choices” in the human sense. Wolves and birds do make choices as they weigh courses of action. The wolf may want to invade the chicken coop, but she also knows the farmer will kill her. Wolves and birds choose according to self-preservation. Elephants and dolphins perhaps occupy an additional strata of choice-making when interacting with the environment. More complex social capacities in these species have greater choice in how they interact. Dolphins at play. Octopuses that reach out to human divers with curiosity. These beings make increasingly complex choices that go beyond life and death decisions. They thus enter a different ethical category.

So, we can create an ontology according to the degree and quality of choices each species appears capable of making. You and I here today can do this! We can also see these choices as a mere byproduct of increased interactivity with the environment. I propose, umph . . .

Suddenly, the man flinched. He quickened his speaking pace, the words spilling out at an incredible speed, but he was unable to finish. I looked up to the storefront having forgotten where I was. A blond woman in nice boots marched out of the Target with a teenaged store employee sheepishly following her. When I turned back, the man was gone, vanished like a ghost.

The store employee nodded, and I looked that way across the parking lot and saw him. The man was running with his small plate, some coins bouncing on the pavement in his wake. He clutched at his loose-waisted pants, a bit of his butt was showing.

“Was he bothering you, too?” the woman asked, her shopping bag clutched close to her side.

“Yes,” I said.

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“Evil in the sight of this Sun”

“Evil in the sight of this Sun”
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement

II Samuel 12:11, Evil in the sight of this sun

Or

Best stories in the emerging genre of Hick Lit.

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Chapter 1: Strangers in a strange land

In the months before Clayton’s death, we had begun to feel safe. Even superior to the normals in town. We felt the freedom of the woods.

He died here. In the woods. Among the sticks and stones. Fell through the dark near 70 feet, we estimated. You could see the flaring burn of his cigarette lofting in an arc out over the ravine like a swooping firefly. Then a rapid, straight descent. More like a meteor shooting toward the earth. They said he was dead on impact, but Jessica had cradled his head after we all sprinted down the dark hillside dodging tree trunks in our rush. She said the paramedics were lying to us. She said she wiped the blood away and looked into his eyes.

….

The ravines of southern Illinois marked the end of the last ice age. Glaciers, we were told, pushed south from the poles in some achingly slow geologic process and rippled the earth in an icy advance. The effect was like corrugating the land with irregular peaks and valleys.

This history left portions of the famously flat American prairie with low-elevation but sharp-angled slopes that funneled summer rains down brush-choked hillsides into rivulets which, in turn, poured into Kickapoo Creek. Each flow paid tribute. The Kickapoo to the Embarras River. Embarras to the Wabash. Wabash to the Ohio. On to the Mississippi. The Mississippi to the far off ocean.

Every time he drank enough, Devin would get serious about building a small armada of canoes and kayaks to float the entire tributary river system to New Orleans and out into the gulf.

“Imagine it. It would be easy to mount Matt’s picnic table on sealed barrels. The barrels are out at Jesse’s farm. They are just sitting out there rusting. Jesse’s dad wouldn’t care. Make em airtight, lash em to the legs and have a communal spot for gear storage and eating together without having to go to shore.”

“A floating picnic table. How novel.” Deb seemed unimpressed.

Seven of us of sat drinking after clearing brush from some forest line. Leaf had designed an open-air shelter and enlisted us to help cut away the nettles and blackberry bushes that had overtaken the plot. We were sweat drenched and full of holes from the thorny detritus we had moved to the burn pile.

Luke laughed. “Look at Huckleberry over here,” gesturing to Devin. “Gonna find himself a N*gger Jim and light out for the territory.”

I cringed, then gritted my teeth. Luke and I had talked about that word. He was normally good about not saying it. At least when I was in ear-shot.

“Luke!” I yelled a little too loud. “Unless you are a black dude or a racist hick, don’t say shit like that. And you aren’t a black man, so . . .”

“I’m quoting literature, man. You should dig that,” he said ingratiatingly.

Devin shut us up before I could say anything else. “Focus people. It’s possible. I’ve mapped it out. We could stop for supplies every two or three days like we do at Greenup when we go down the Embarras. What was that? Like five hours?”

“Six hours in late summer. Uh . . . Four and a half in spring,” Leaf piped up, raising his hand to his eyebrows to look up at the sunny sky.

Leaf was usually quiet. When he spoke, everyone listened. The kid had retained a speech impediment into his late teens despite the public school system trying to drill it out of him for years, but that did not affect the respect everyone had for him. At least the country folks. People in town were less forgiving. He was rarely showered and had a wardrobe one would expect from a reclusive serial bomber. But Leaf lived in the country and he knew the rivers. He knew the wilderness better than most of us. Luke, Tully and Deb knew it too. I didn’t know shit. I was the cityboy they tolerated because they could tell I loved the woods. I only felt accepted after Leaf taught me to juggle the burning coals of a dying fire.

Devin went on, emboldened by Leaf. “Fuck yeah. I’m telling you guys. We could do it. It would be epic. After Greenup, we could stop in Newton. We’ve got New Liberty, The Chauncey Preserve, and Lawrenceville for stops too. Once we are on the Wabash, I’ve got a cousin in Mount Carmel. We can set up on his property for a couple of days.”

“Do you have any relatives once we are on the Mississippi?” Deb’s tone was incredulous. You could almost feel her eyes rolling in how Deb punctuated her words. She often played the skeptic when Devin got on his flights of fancy. Where Devin was loud and blunt, Deb was thoughtful and incisive. “Is every farmer gonna be happy to see a long-haired drunk like Luke wandering onto his land from the river?”

Spring Summer 2016 069

“We could find something,” Leaf said. “There’s a lot of beach along the wriver banks. And there arwe small islands where no one would bother us with plenty of driftwood for fiwres.”

“Easy,” Devin went on. “Once we get to bigger water, we could fish for food rather than having to go into town all the time.”

“We can’t fish for beers, brotha. Beers cost money.” Luke was giving the idea more thought than he had in the past. He threw the can he had just emptied into the mound of unburnable trash. An old two-by-four with the words “RECYCLE ONLY!” burn-etched was nailed to the tree nearby.

“Hell,” I said. “We could get sponsorship. Some kayak company that wants a bit of good press.” No one responded. I realized right away that had violated the spirit of the trip we were imagining. “I’m just saying we could make the trip less expensive. It’s gonna cost money.”

“Not really,” Devin said dismissively. “Sandwiches and the occasional 24-pack of Miller High Life would be our main expense. My tent and Luke’s could fit 10 people easy.”

“It’s actually my mom’s tent,” Luke added.

As evening came on, we watched the fire grow brighter. Devin took to adding to the burning brush and then taking a running leap over. Luke’s brother had mysterious, clear whiskey that smelled like nail polish remover but burst like a flame thrower when he spit mouthfuls at Devin’s fire. Leaf and I tossed smoking embers back and forth. An evening moon appeared as if hastening the sun’s departure.