My Son, Simon

On October 17, my son, Simon, was born. As he entered the world, his heart rate dropped. The umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. That first image of my son is burned into me: the stark whiteness of the cord set against his blueing skin, cinched tight to his neck, nested just beneath his ear. The whole universe revolved around that one point: the inch of tissue where life and suffering were one. I spoke softly, to myself and my wife, though I wasn’t sure it was true: “He’s okay. He’s okay.” Tears formed in my eyes. That’s all I could do as he came into the world. I could do nothing else.

That cord across Simon’s neck was his burden, unwillingly given to him. He was made to bear it though he did not ask for it. And I, his father and protector, stood by the wayside, frozen, pleading silently for the little boy. My heart rate rose as his dropped. My hands grasped as his were weak. I spoke when he was choked for a voice.

And I could not bring myself to look anywhere else but at my son and his suffering. 

And then the burden was taken from him: in several swift movements, the doctor took two clamps and secured them on that small span of tissue, the scissors slid up near his neck, closed down around the whiteness of the cord and severed it. And Simon was granted new life. He breathed, he cried. And today, he is a beautiful, healthy little boy. And I deeply and whole heartedly thank the doctor and nurses for that. We held him close, nestled him away with us, spoke to him, smiled at him. And he was ok. His burden was gone—lifted from him.


The day after Simon was born, I went to get coffee in the cafe downstairs. Through the windows, I saw a statue: a winged angel holding a small baby. I walked out of the doors and into the cool morning. The sky was a pale grey. New parents busied themselves latching baby seats into cars, smiling and laughing and worrying with pride. 

I turned from the lot and walked through the small prayer garden, tucked away around the corner: a garden devoted to lost children. Water trickled down a brickscaped half-wall. The wall was covered with small copper plates with the names of children who suffered and died. A litany of babies who bore immense suffering that was never taken from them. I felt the water and tears trickle behind those name-plates, animating the memories of children who were no longer here. Then I returned upstairs to my baby boy and my beautiful wife, trying to hide the redness of my face.

And as he slept in the bassinet, I understood what miracle my son has come through—what beauty I hold in my arms. His burden was lifted, and I could do nothing but stand in rapt awe that he was, is, here. I cried, I wondered and questioned and attempted to form meaning out of what has been given to me and my wife: the ambivalence of pain, suffering, happiness, life. 

And as I cried, I found myself wondering something else at the same time: What if the burden was never lifted? What if the suffering lasted forever? 

I think perhaps I found that answer in that garden. The answer, maybe, is the same: We cry, we stand in rapt awe, we wonder and question and attempt to form meaning out of what we are given.

Both life and death are worthy of our deepest passion, both worthy of our greatest reverence, both worthy of being remembered by we, the living.


For more on the Angel Garden at Virtua Voorhees, or to give, see here.

The Grace of Silence

A bit less than a month ago, I had surgery on my vocal cords to remove a polyp. Following surgery, I was on voice rest for a week: no speaking, no sounds were to come from my mouth for seven days. I abided by the rules as best I could. In all, I’d estimate only a dozen phrases passed my lips over those seven days. But for the most part, I held my silence.

A notepad and pen became my form of communication: cumbersome, delayed, lacking tone and inflection.

Phone calls became others’ monologues starting with, “I know you can’t talk, but I just wanted to…”

I went to a wedding. A woman asked me if I could eat normal food as I oddly struggled to bite into a piece of coconut friend shrimp. Half of it slipped out of my mouth and slid down my shirt. My wife answered for me: “Yes, it’s just his vocal cords. It’s not his food pipe.” I couldn’t even laugh at myself.

I started a new job. At orientation, my principal came by to discuss health paperwork that I needed to get in. I started to scribble on my notepad. Then another question came, and another. I put the notepad down and used my voice. The vibrations rung through my neck and into my jaws. Is this what it’s like to speak? I thought.

My wife carried my daughter downstairs on a Saturday morning at 6am. “Hat! You’re awa—!” and I cut off my last word, aware of my voice spilling noise into the world, but wanting it so badly to do so.

Though I did not achieve perfect silence, I felt something close. It was difficult, and at some points, it set me apart from those I love most: a visceral and brutal separation. But I also found a grace in the quiet eruption of silence into my life: it cooled my frustrations, slowed my perceptions, held a mirror to my thoughts.

So perhaps we are meant to be more silent than we are. Perhaps we should see silence not as nothing, but as the womb of something—the birthplace of everything. And if we do, perhaps we’ll stop stuffing it with filler, forcing it to bear the fruit of endless material consumption, constant stress, and meaningless suffering. Perhaps we’ll start investing that holy silence with something greater: creativity, awareness, contemplation, and above all else, love.

The Call of King Cole

My Grandmother and Mundane Miracles

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together.“I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.

He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

“No,” they answered.

He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

I think we often miss the miracle in the story of the fishes. The miracle is not about catching fish. It does not matter whether fish were caught or not caught, whether there were 153 fish, fifteen fish, or no fish at all.

The miracle lies elsewhere: in the realization that the mundane is miracle. After the Resurrection, the Christ visits people, he sits with them, talks with them, and he eats with them. In short, he communes with the world, and is present to those who are willing to see him. The miracle of this story is not a surplus of fish, but the realization that seemingly banal acts, such as cooking breakfast and eating bread, are communion—not in a dogmatic sense, but in the sense that we share in, and commune with, all that makes up our experience of existence. Jesus, holding both life and death within him, returns to his disciples in order to show them that the common is divine: that bread and fish are cosmic flesh and wine is cosmic blood.

At the end of 2016, my grandmother got very sick. And we all fought so damn hard to keep her here with us: treatments, prayer, hope beyond hope.  But my grandmother, I believe, saw life with the eyes of one anointed by the understanding that the mundane is miracle. So while we fought, she accepted her death with awe and with love. And so a thin gossamer veil separating life from death rose up before her alone, and we watched her passage from a distance, through fog and fear, wishing that we could be there with her so that we could throw a lock upon the veil, just so that we could keep her here with us for one more day or month or year.

But we couldn’t, and we knew that, and it hurt to see her go. But though it still hurts, and I miss her dearly, I now know something else as well. By design or by chance I do not know, but the veil of gossamer that separates life from death moves sometimes: the Universe lifts it and sends it upon winds where it flits and lands upon mythical mountainsides where the living have never been, and here the veil spreads out and encircles the cosmos in a flowing ribbon whose border is imperceptible to the eye. And the living set their compasses to its location and seek it in their minds so that they can attempt to hold it in writing, in paints and pictures, or in philosophical thoughts. But just when we think we know where it is, what it is made of, or what lies beyond it, the Universe picks it up again, casts it to the winds that roll off our shoulders in the rush of our lives, and it falls upon some new mythical mountainside, and the search begins again.

An here is the miracle of our everyday lives: Sometimes, when the veil moves, we find ourselves in communion with the dead, on the other side of the veil, or perhaps it is the dead on our side. And when this happens, I know that my grandmother is not dead, just as truly as the disciples knew that the Christ was not dead. And though grandma does not appear to us on a shore to call us to eat fish and break bread, she is made manifest in other mundane miracles: She calls to us in certain footfalls that creak the floorboards of our houses and remind us of the home she created. She calls to us in certain words that come from the mouth of her daughter that remind us of her voice. And she calls to us at certain tables when we surround ourselves by laughter and loved ones and more food than we could possibly eat in one sitting.

So I do not believe in the miracle of the fishes. I have no reason to think it awesome or amazing that 153 fishes were pulled up in a single net. But I do believe in something else: I believe in the divinity of the mundane and the fluidity of life and death. I believe that the dead live eternally, not in Heaven, but here, with us, now.

Transcending the Gnostic Duality: Atemporal Existence, Amoral Judge

Judge Holden of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian has been identified by Petra Mundik and Leo Daugherty as an archon of Gnostic theology. They propose that he represents the god-like being that attempts to keep humanity from gnosis, or the joining of the spirit with the unknown Godhead. “The Gnostics’ only source of comfort was the thought that although the manifest cosmos may be dark and infinite, it is also ultimately impermanent and illusory” (Mundik 75). Although Mundik and Daugherty put forth a well rounded argument, they fail to understand the importance of one small, but critical aspect of the judge’s philosophy: time, as well as matter, is an illusion. The illusory manifestation we call existence is not merely impermanent, which implies a future salvation state that is permanent; for the judge, the perception of matter within a flow of time is also an illusory manifestation—there are no future states, only an eternal present that is paradoxically and eternally a void state as well as an illusory experiential state. The paradoxical concept of an atemporal existence coexisting alongside our experiential perception of time may seem impossible, perhaps even foolish, but some modern scientists support this claim, notably physicist Julian Barbour. In a suitable metaphor that the judge would applaud, Barbour tells us about the eternal nature of what he calls Nows: “The only evidence we have of the Earth’s past is rocks and fossils. But these are just stable structures in the form of an arrangement of minerals we examine in the present. The point is, all we have is these records and you only have them in this Now” (Frank 302).

If the judge understands the world in these atemporal terms, then the judge is not an archon nor is he based upon gnostic conceptions. Atemporality has removed the dualistic core of  gnosticism and replaced it with a paradoxical, yet unified void state. In this scenario, the judge becomes an Adamite figure, transcending the prison of the illusory material, temporal, and socially constructed world to become aware of his unity with the unknown, unknowable Godhead outside of time. But even so, I hesitate to label the judge as an Adamite figure, a label which implies his separation from other individuals and from other aspects of creation. Due to atemporality, all creation is part of a singularity, a void state that links the eternally present Now with Eternity itself. In this void state, nothing exists individually, no matter how divine or demonic it may appear. In this paper, I hope to refute the theory of judge as archon and to claim the judge as an inhuman, holistic symbol of the transcendence which contains all creation within it: the void consciousness, made manifest, that has attained unity. Below, I will discuss evidence of the judge’s understanding of the atemporal world and its ramifications on morality, the role of war in forcing cosmic unity, the role of individual value judgements in an atemporal world, how the judge acts as Adamite guide, and how his attainment of gnosis is a critique of the perceptual view of time itself. As a word of warning, these arguments will tend to run together, as all things in an atemporal environment tend to do.

Posting Witnesses: Effects of Atemporality on Morality

In his article “Language and the Dance of Time in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian,” John Rothfork denies the possibility of the judge attaining any form of transcendence. He proposes two problems for the judge:

“Language is not his, or anyone’s invention or possession…Holden’s second and related problem is that in using language he necessarily addresses someone who understands the language and cares for the meaning of what he is saying. Total domination and transcendence are not possible because the recourse to language necessitates appealing to an audience” (Rothfork 27).

But Rothfork fails to understand that due to atemporality, the judge contains all discourse within himself; he is a solipsist of the highest degree: “As the dance is the thing with which we are concerned and contains complete within itself its own arrangement and history and finale there is no necessity that the dancers contain these things within themselves as well” (McCarthy 342). The judge is the manifestation of the dance; he contains the arrangement, history, and finale—he contains the dancers themselves and the language that allows communication—therefore he is beyond the issues put forth by Rothfork. For the dancers, a lack of knowledge of the judge’s understanding of the world does not free the dancers from the order that the judge imposes upon them. “But order is not set aside because of their indifference,” the judge tells us (McCarthy 342). Rothfork fails to take into account the atemporal mindset and solipsism of the judge. So total domination and transcendence are possible because for the judge, recourse to language necessitates a self reflective consciousness upon a solipsistic and eternal Now—the judge is the dance, and the dance occurs in Eternity. The judge is an illusion that is aware of his status as an illusion; this realization makes him the eternal void made manifest. As such, he exists outside of time and outside of matter. This is evidenced by his haunting question to the kid in their final encounter. The judge speaks:

Men’s memories are uncertain and the past that was differs little from the past that was not.

He took up the tumbler the judge had poured and he drank and set it down again. He looked at the judge. I been everwhere, he said. This is just one more place.

The judge arched his brow. Did you post witnesses? he said. To report to you on the continuing existence of those places once you’d quit them?

That’s crazy.

Is it? Where is yesterday? Where is Glanton and Brown and where is the priest? (McCarthy 344)

What is the past, what is the future, if all is part of the eternal Now, the dance of eternity? It is quite clear that the judge exists outside of the limits of time. It is also quite clear that he is not altogether human, but nor is he an archon ruling over the illusory world. The judge is the prime essence of existence, the original Adamite man restrained by neither time nor matter, made manifest in the illusory experience of life.

In her article “Blood Meridian’s Man of Many Masks: Judge Holden as Tarot’s Fool,” Emily Stinson explores in detail the atemporality of the judge and the ramifications of that atemporality: “In short, Judge Holden’s all-encompassing role may be that of universal signifier in that he surpasses any one signifier/signified role and exists outside of time and space” (Stinson 9). She goes on to equate the judge with the Tarot’s fool as wanderer, immortal, and the most powerful of Tarot’s Trump Cards. He upsets “the established order [of the cards] with his pranks” (Stinson 13). An atemporal world allows the judge the capacity to upset the order, specifically the moral order in which he operates. Because the fool is thoroughly amoral, “he submits to no discipline and is guided wholly by his experimental attitude toward life” (Nichols 32). The judge is able to shirk the social morality of the late 1800’s borderlands. For the judge, he does not exist on the frontier, he exists in the eternal Now. In transcending morality, the judge reveals the irony of socially constructed morality: only those who have transcended morality (and therefore any label, binary, or social construct) are demonized or canonized. For those individuals, there is no moral compass, there is only the void state that is accessed through the illusory dance of the eternal Now.  Atemporality, for good or bad, has granted the judge a transcendent perspective on existence. There are two routes for the transcendent being to take: worship the illusory manifestation as miracle, or experiment with the experience of life, manipulating it and bringing to conflict the illusory manifestation as some:

“hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning” (McCarthy 256)

The judge has taken the latter course of action.

War as Unification

So how can a transcendent being who knows the world is an illusory manifestation of the void try to unify the illusory manifestation with the void? The judge tells us quite clearly: “War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god” (McCarthy 261).  Our conception of death within the confinement of the time-space illusion is the closest we can get to understanding the void state, the unknowable God. The judge forces this metaphor to its proper conclusion by bringing war and death to all forms of the illusory manifestation; it is a depraved form of bringing transcendence to the world. In the epilogue, the unnamed man is violently setting the soul-fire free from the material rock to unity in the eternal Now. But the epilogue is not about a new Prometheus who has come to save souls from the archon judge, but about the judge himself, amoral and violent, doing what he has done for all time: unifying the illusory manifestation of existence in the ever-present and eternal Now. In his novel Steppenwulf, Hesse writes: “Seriousness, young man, is an accident of time. It consists… in putting too high a value on time… In eternity, however, there is no time, you see. Eternity is a mere moment, just long enough for a joke” (Hesse 97). The judge is saying essentially the same thing as Hesse’s immortal, but the Judge would make one change that cracks open the historical jars of morality: “Eternity is a mere moment, just long enough for war.”

Individual Value Judgements: Proper Suzerain

Julian Barbour tells us that “The mature brain is a time capsule. History resides in its structure” (Barbour 33). Likewise, the judge’s solipsistic view of experience allows him to understand individuals not as separate autonomous beings with histories and futures of their own, but as parts of himself that are either aligned with his understanding of the world, or misaligned with it. The judge, in effect, is schizophrenic: his mind is split and his life is an attempt to unify these schismatic splinters that manifest themselves as pieces of matter, whether they be artifacts like the armor he sketches or humans like the kid whom he studies. The kid is the most painful splinter in the judge’s mind, and as such, he becomes the protagonist of the story, destined to come to cosmic unification in the judge through violence. To understand the paradoxical way that the judge can apply individual value judgements to what is ultimately a manifestation of the void state we need to look at the kid’s archaic and symbolic dream:

“The fool was no longer there but another man and this other man he could never see in his entirety but he seemed an artisan and a worker of metal. The judge enshadowed him where he crouched at his trade but he was a cold forger who worked with hammer and die, perhaps under some indictment and an exile form men’s fires, hammering out like his own conjectural destiny all through the night of his becoming some coinage for a dawn that would not be. It is this false moneyer with his gravers and burins who seeks favor with the judge and he is at contriving from cold slag brute in the crucible a face that will pass, an image that will render this residual specie current in the markets where men barter. Of this is the judge judge and the night does not end.” (McCarthy 322-323)

The judge is the judge of value in the illusory manifestation we call life. He determines which of the cold slag brute is stamped with the approval of his mind and may pass into the illusory manifestation of existence—the markets where men barter. But this value is ultimately, as the judge well knows, of no value at all; he judges an illusory manifestation: the falsity that appears as material and time. The Judge knows that the coldforger’s work will never see the light of day; it will never hold any essential value because the night does not end. The judge’s world, like Julian Barbour’s science, is a paradox—existence without existence—and he is the only one who understands this. He stands both within and without the experience of life. He is the one who gives value to that which has no value. But although nothing is of value, the judge is not a nihilist. The illusory manifestations do matter; but they do not matter in and of themselves—they matter in how they are represented in the solipsistic mind of the judge. History resides within the judge’s mental structure, which resides in the eternal Now. Whether the kid lives or dies, despite his being the most painful splinter in the judge’s mind, does not matter. The kid is not an autonomous individual—he is a part of the judge’s illusory manifestation, meant to become unified with the void state through the function of war. The judge describes this paradox of seeming autonomy within a solipsistic mind when explaining the role of the suzerain: “Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth” (McCarthy 207). The task of the transcendent being made flesh is to bring illusory nature to a unification with the void state by making it stand naked before him; it allows the realization that what stands before him is his—an illusory manifestation—a splinter also made flesh. As the suzerain state contains the autonomy of its lower states, so the judge’s void state mind contains the autonomy of all illusory manifestations, of all individual minds regardless of their appearance as autonomous units.

Adamite Guide

If the judge is not an archon, what then is he? As mentioned earlier, I hesitate to label him (or any illusory manifestation for that matter) as anything at all. As the judge tells us himself, he is a nothingness:

And yet there will be one there always who is a true dancer and can you guess who that might be?

You aint nothin.

You speak truer than you know. (McCarthy 345)

For the sake of analysis however, I will make an attempt at describing the void made manifest: the judge can be viewed as an Adamite Guide figure, the first man and the every man. The judge is the one who shows others the path to transcendence and freedom from the illusory world; he is the gnostic master with a penchant for violence. But as mentioned, instead of sharing his gnosis with the miraculous world, he drags the splinters of his mind along behind him in a wake of destruction, forcing them to unity through science, violence, and war. He pushes other individuals to the brink of their own solipsistic knowledge of the void state. One of the more interesting examples of the judge as guide is in the relationship between the priest and himself.

Journeyman priest or apprentice priest, said the judge. Men of god and men of war have strange affinities.

I’ll secondsay you in your notions, said Tobin. Don’t ask it.

Ah Priest, said the judge. What could I ask of you that you’ve not already given. (McCarthy 262)

The priest has already come to understand the philosophy that the judge preaches; he has accepted the unity of god and war,  analogous to the unity of the void and the manifestation. The priest has given himself to the void through the teaching of the judge, something that the kid never does: “You alone were mutinous. You alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen,” the judge says of the kid (McCarthy 312). The kid’s unwillingness to accept the judge forces the judge to unify, by death, the splinter that denies unity. The judge is that unity, he is the origin and the Adamite, the one who sets individuals free either by rhetoric or by war.

Like the Adamite figure, the judge is said to be without origin; to the kid, this is a mystery. But to the judge, it is truth, for him just as it is for all of existence: he has sprung from the very void state that all being has sprung from. And to spring from a void is to never spring at all. The judge is:

A great shambling mutant, silent and serene. Whatever his antecedents, he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of any ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing. (McCarthy 322)

He is the Godhead made flesh—the void made manifest with the knowledge of his void state origins: although appearing as man, that is not what he is. Like other Adamite saviors, he is sent into the world of experience, yet free from the world of experience; he lives a paradoxical existence, both within and without time and space. As such, his role, like all Adamite figures, is to guide others to the same gnostic understanding of the experiential world as illusion. He does this of course most notably through violence, but he also shares his teachings through esoteric riddles and scholarly discourse. But sometimes the judge speaks plainly: “Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery” (McCarthy 263). Nothing exists in the void; the judge is the void made manifest, he lays the string in the maze, he decides the value of the specie, and he alone understands the “order… that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others” (McCarthy 256).

Critique of Time

In viewing the world atemporally, the judge has shattered morality completely. Life as we know it, as the flow of experiential events in time, is not the truth. What we perceive as autonomous individuals, matter, and time are merely manifestations of a void state become experiential. For the judge, who understands this, forcing material unity is the task of life. The judge has destroyed the conception of life as experience and reconstructed it as a solipsistic battlefield. He has left us with a blank slate smeared with blood: Now is eternal, the void is eternal, and the illusory manifestation of life is just a traveling medicine show of horrors.

The judge lives in paradox: what exists is not, and what does not exist, is. The absence of time in the metaphysical philosophy of the judge allows for a negation of all experience and the assumption of total unity despite material and temporal evidence to the contrary. Life is a game, and the judge has chosen to play it violently. By simply critiquing the assumption of time as real, the judge has destroyed our understanding of autonomy, morality, and divinity. What we are left with is perhaps the truth. What appears as autonomous complexity existing within the flow of time and struggling between the dualities of good and evil is perhaps a single transcendent unity: is that such an evil thing?

Bibiolography:

Barbour, Julian B. The End of Time: The next Revolution in Physics. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Frank, Adam. About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang. New York: Free, 2012. Print.

Hesse, Hermann. Steppenwolf. New York: Picador, 2002. Print.

McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian, Or, The Evening Redness in the West. Modern Library ed. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Print.

Mundik, Petra. “‘Striking the Fire Out of the Rock’: Gnostic Theology in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.” South Central Review 2009: 72. JSTOR Journals. Web. 3 May 2015.

Nichols, Sallie. Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1980

Rothfork, John. “Language And The Dance Of Time In Cormac Mccarthy’s Blood Meridian.” Southwestern American Literature 1 (2004): 23. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 May 2015.

Stinson, Emily J. “Blood Meridian’s Man Of Many Masks: Judge Holden As Tarot’s Fool.” Southwestern American Literature 1 (2007): 9. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 May 2015.

Belated Thoughts on Gerry Largay

Gerry Largay, also known as Inchworm, was a 66 year old thru-hiker of the Appalachian Trail in 2013: the same year that I completed my thru-hike. She disappeared from the trail in Maine during the month of July. At the time of her disappearance, I was much further south, somewhere in Virginia.

During my journaling and the subsequent writing of Adventures of a Trail Stooge, I never once mention Gerry Largay. Even today, I don’t precisely know why, though I will attempt to sort through the reason why below.

Some people have branded my story “immature,” and perhaps that is the reason why I did not mention Gerry: I did not have the capacity for compassion for another person because I was emotionally caught up in my own life. Or perhaps it is that I was simply too involved in my own basic needs of food, water, and shelter to think about those of another. Here too, the reason would be an inhibition of compassion and kindness on my part; an inability to sympathize with another thru-hiker.

But I don’t think that is the reason. I felt sadness and sorrow for her. I saw her picture hanging from flyers on trees. I saw her wide smile and that red jacket, and the blue bandana on her head. She looked just like any other hiker I might meet on the trail and talk about food and water with, and ask them how their day was going, and feel confident that they would make it to Katahdin because they’ve made it so damn far already. In that picture that was posted all over the trail, she looked like she was supposed to. She looked content and happy and a part of the AT community. So maybe I didn’t write about her because I was confident that she would be found; or maybe I was just hoping against hope that she would be, and to write about it would break the tension that lay over her disappearance. In a way, writing about her would be an acceptance of tragedy, and perhaps I did not want to do that. I wanted Gerry Largay to wind up on Katahdin. I wanted her to have an epic adventure that she could go home and tell her family about, and laugh about, and cry about, and show them pictures of, and tell them about all the trail angels and hikers and silly mistakes that she made, like a wrong turn when she got off the trail. I wanted that mistake to be something to laugh about, and I still held out hope that it would be something to laugh about, that she would summit Katahdin in due time.

But I don’t think that is the reason either.  I talked to other thru-hikers about her. We said how sad it was that she was missing, and that we hope that they find her soon. And those ideas were heartfelt, yet they had the pang of morbid resignation: I knew that it was highly unlikely she would be found alive. I had already admitted to myself, whether I wrote it down or not, that she was likely dead. Three months after she went missing, as I walked through the woods of Maine, I knew that somewhere in the wilderness was Gerry Largay’s corpse. I had imagined that she had fallen down a hillside far from the trail, or had gotten injured in some way and wandered deep into the forest, and that her body was inaccessible with the cold winter moving in. But I was wrong: she was no more than a mile off the trail, having left the AT to relieve herself and gotten confused. And that’s where she died, rolled up in her sleeping bag and her tent, less than a mile from where I walked at some point in the woods of Maine.

So what is the reason I failed to write about Inchworm? In the end, I suppose I simply do not know. But I do think this: I think the AT elevated my perspective on existence. It insulated my emotions and feelings from the sad and brutal things that we see and hear about every day of our lives. The AT allowed me to slow down the fire of my soul, accept what is brutal and terrible, and engage with existence in all its myriad forms, without wanting to burn the entire world apart, without wanting to damn it all to Hell.

Perhaps this is why I did not feel the need to write about the death of Gerry Largay–perhaps I had accepted it the moment I saw that flyer nailed to a tree. Life and death live side by side on the trail: what is alive is only alive because what is dead is now dead. All life falters and is consumed by the void to begin the cycle again. Life and death are not opposites, they are part of a single unity. This is not metaphysical; as a hiker, you see it in the woods at every turn, it surrounds you with every step. It is always there: rotting trees lie against the living, forcing them to bear a lifeless burden; beetles crawl upon the corpse of a baby deer and larva are planted within its flesh; squirrels and birds and all beasts hunt and are hunted and die and are eaten; the fallen foliage under our feet is decayed and turned to soil by the worms and bacteria along with flesh and feces.

So perhaps I just accepted it. But even so, I am ashamed of myself for not sharing Gerry Largay’s story earlier. I am ashamed that I did not write about her on my blog or in my book. I am ashamed that I did not take the time, until now, to sort through the swirl of ideas that her death on the AT brings up in me. So this is my attempt to rectify that, and in doing so, I do not mean to belittle Gerry Largay’s death, or the death of any individual. But I hope we can find both the beauty and the misery in all tragedy. Because they are both a part of the horribly beautiful dance of death that Inchworm was a part of—that we are all a part of—the thing that we call Life.

For more information on Gerry, here is a link to an article on her disappearance.

To Do What We Want

“It is just so beautifully wild out there. Sometimes it is difficult to imagine vast tracts of land that have been minimally touched by the push of human progress – but they are there, and they are amazing. It is a powerful view to look out over forest and hills and not see roads cutting scars across the land. It’s powerful to know that this is what the world really is – it is not cars and buildings and schedules and presentations. The real world is something far more awe inspiring and spiritually massive than anything we can imagine sitting inside a home or an office. There is a feeling of stewardship that arises when you look out over the wilds. Because although we can do what we want with the land–we can lay roads, cut trees, mine ore, and build towns–it is not ours to do as we wish with. And we can feel that in some moments, when we see ourselves as peaceful individuals on a hillside, that we are integral with the rest of the world.”

I wrote those words in a blog entry during my time on the trail. I’ve said it many times–I often struggle to maintain the mindset that I had while on the trail. Words do not fully express the subtleties that go along with thoughts that carry so much weight–thoughts that seem to defile the idea of human progress, or to damn technological pursuit. I think in writing the above words, I failed to see a deeper meaning.

Perhaps value does not lie in the tangible outcome: it does not matter whether we have untarnished wooded plots or complex machine cities. It does not matter whether we have untainted rocky mountains or burnished city skylines. All objects are merely benign matter in the end, and matter itself is not inherently moral or immoral.

And perhaps value does not lie in the processes of our lives: it does not matter whether we destroy, create, preserve, modify. None is inherently better than the rest; they are all necessary modes of interaction with the World. One must be willing to destroy in order to create. One must be willing to modify in order to preserve. They are all just interactions with and between matter, and as such, are not inherently moral or immoral processes.

So perhaps the value lies somewhere else, somewhere beyond matter. Perhaps it lies in our minds–in the motivations and intentions that drive us to influence and alter the World. What is the spirit behind the matter? Do we seek to integrate ourselves with the World, or do we seek to dis-integrate ourselves from it, and it from ourselves?

In writing the above entry, I failed to see that we can do what we want with the land. But we also need to remember that the land, like ourselves, is only a small manifestation of the infinite and eternal cosmos–it is a Mask of God, but without human features: brains and fingers, nerves and culture. It is a Mask made of bark and leaf, soil and rot, mushroom and maggot. It is made of rock and moss, skull and gnat, stinging bee and soothing stream, rising fog and burning sun. The myriad entities of the world arise as something non-human and therefore different from our conception of interaction and communication. But simply because something is non-human does not mean that it is non-communicative. All things have a mind–every single thing is a Mask of God, and therefore, are endowed with a reason for being. Each rock, each root, each grain of sand cries out, “The fact that I exist leads me to believe that I am worthy of existence.” But I also hear the roadways cry this out too, and the buildings, and the machines and the technology that we create and destroy, modify and preserve: “The fact that I exist leads me to believe that I am worthy of existence.”

Thomas Berry wrote that “Every being has its own voice. Every being declares itself to the entire universe.” Just because we can not hear that declaration in human syllables does not mean it is not declared. So our declarations as human beings–our choices to destroy, create, preserve, or modify–must be integrated with the declarations of the matter and minds that surround us, regardless of whether they take up form in the natural world, or in the sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying brave new World that we have created for ourselves.

Relieve the Loading

For the necessary time,

the rope carried the New York wound.

The river and the tall gallant were joined.

A traveler stretched on a day in August.

Farrington–the master mechanic of Niagara–

set out to show that it was easy if you only thought so.

 

He shot the traveler,

while a million people craned their necks,

from the streets, and docks,

and housetops, and boats along the river,

and swallowed hard at their hearts.

 

The cannon tore the air,

the multitudes yelled

that Greater New York was the way.

_________________________________

The above poem is a slightly modified, redacted poem derived from Outspinning the Spider: The Story of Wire and Wire Rope by John Kimberly Mumford. Below is the original text with redaction markings. Click to expand.

Relieve the Loading

Thoughts on Adventures of a Trail Stooge

I wanted to share with everyone…
Just share a little bit about the way I wrote and thought about the compilation of Adventures of a Trail Stooge. The Mt Laurel Sun covered some of this in their excellent article that came out last week. You can find that here. But I wanted to lay it out in a little more detail in the hopes that it would better explain some of the thoughts and ideas that have come to be very important in my life. I wanted to pull back the curtain on the writing process and grant some insight into what the book attempts to do on a literary and philosophical level.

Of course, as with all things, these ideas need not be your own. They are mine, so I’ll split open my mind to you for a time in the hopes I can convey something worthwhile. But do not take them all—for you are your own-minded individual! Only take what you deem worthy of thought. Synthesize those ideas within your own mindframes as you see fit.

What is this story about?
The Appalachian Trail is the vessel that holds the stories of every thru-hiker. And each year, more hikers pour their stories into it, hopefully for the better. Adventures of a Trail Stooge is not about the vessel, it’s about the drop of experience that I call my own.

I have said this many times, and I will say it again: my journey was not about the Appalachian Trail. My journey was about a young man who needed to find himself, and in turn, find the courage to be himself. It is about meeting great people and learning how to live and love. The AT is an amazing place, but it is not the primary focus of this story. If I did not choose the AT, I would have chosen somewhere else. And if I did not do it in 2013, I would have done it sometime else.

This is not a travelogue or a guide on how to hike the AT. It does not involve advice on what towns to visit, or what gear to pack, or what shelters or sites to see. I felt those things unnecessary. The AT is a place that becomes your own when you walk it. What it is bleeds into you, and what you are bleeds into it. My thru-hike was unique, as all are. The relationships I formed and the thoughts I had, and which no individual can replicate, are the spirit of this story. I implore readers to look beyond the setting and to seek meaning in that spirit. This is a story about simplifying, struggling, making friends, and ultimately about finding comfort in one’s own life and mind.

What’s up with the bizarre format?
I chose a strange way to convey this story for a reason, although it may have been a reason that lived at the back of my mind until only recently. Many other trail memoirs are more traditional in their structure. Those hiker-authors will source their narrative from their journal entries, massaging them into a polished product, dramatizing some aspects, downplaying others, and leaving out inanities. That is one way to do it, and I don’t think it’s a bad way at all. I’ve read some good trail memoirs that do just that. But for me, that is not what I wanted to convey. I did not want to put makeup on my journal entries.

My trail experience was personal and present. Each moment, regardless of the circumstances surrounding it, was a moment that I was a part of. The natural tone, the raw journal entry, is what I wanted to convey. My greatest and most accurate relic of my trail experience is my journal. To mask the entries with flowery prose and a semi-fictitious facade would be a misrepresentation of what I went through. Admittedly, many of my journal entries are pretty poorly written. I write conversationally, using jargon and vocabulary that can be described as immature. I use forms of punctuation that are non-traditional. It is not lyrical prose. It is not perfect, nor was it ever intended to be.

With that said, I needed a perspective that tied together the journal entries into a coherent narrative. That is why I chose to include post-trail notes after each entry. This is the perspective that allows me to fill in the gaps, invigorate events that my tired mind could not record with an artist’s pen, and provide commentary on the thoughts that were going on within me.

I again implore each reader to seek something deeper within this format. Reading deeply and consciously is a challenge, I know. But when we push ourselves to the brink, when we meditate and think, we can see something that lies beneath the words and the format, beneath the setting, beneath the physical world. The journal entries are there to convey something raw and unmasked. I wrote them on my back in a sleeping bag with a headlamp on. I wrote them after a day of hiking in which my mind either raced with thoughts of the universe, or lay idle in a fog of fatigue. It is difficult to picture the AT, I know. Perhaps I could have done a better job filling in those blanks with descriptors and imagery. But I wanted the reader to struggle a bit with this. I wanted them to focus not too much on the place, but on the feeling and the spirit that underlies that place—I wanted you to put yourself not in my shoes, but in my mind. To alter my journal entries would be unfair to the experience. Those entries are the most perfect representation of my imperfect experience. They hold my struggles, boredoms, and inanities—but they are part of the totality of my trip—they are mine.

Oh man, this is going to get weird…
During my thru-hike, I came to embrace the idea of paradox not as a problem to be overcome, but as truth in its highest form. I found, at times, that I was capable of understanding myself innately as both an individual and a unity. This feeling was the subject of my blog post Alone. Over time, I learned to embrace paradox wherever I found it. I stepped back from reason, and I started to trust my spirit, or my intuition, or God, or Oneness, or whatever word you may use there.

The understanding of paradox was one of the reasons I think I subconsciously chose to include the raw journal entries in my book. Through the entries, I tried to show that what is mundane is also paradoxically transcendent. What is inane is also paradoxically sublime. As I say in the forward, I never had any blinding revelation, never had any transcendent glimpse of fiery wisdom. But what I did have was small moments in which the trail became something else, something higher and holy. And then it became the trail again, but without losing its sublimity, without becoming something less. The format is also a kind of paradox in itself—two perspectives (one on the trail, one after the trail) that are actually a single perspective.

Likewise, I began to see paradoxically on a grander scale. I came to understand myself as a small part of a universal expression: an individual consciousness alienated from all other consciouses, yet endowed with the miracle of existence, thought, and empathy. I saw myself as a manifestation of a greater consciousness. I came to see myself as a material Something—flesh and blood held together by mind—arising from nothing—a beautiful and pervasive void—an unknowable Nothingness. I began to feel as though I operated both within time and outside of it: a temporal and eternal being. Yet I did not feel contradictory. In fact, I felt most complete in those times.

There is also the nebulous idea of perspective and re-perspective—that one and all are both an experiencer and an experience. Where is the line between others and myself? Where is the line between a perspective on a cosmic scale and our perspective as human beings? Where is the line between my trail perspective and my post-trail perspective? What we perceive perceives us back, not only in the form of other individuals, but in the form of the totality of existence.

And then there is my name: The Esteemed Stooge Sir Charles Guilons, a playful paradox. How can I be a noble stooge? A fool with wisdom? Esteemed in my stooginess? How can an immature kid figure anything out? I don’t know. But maybe, just maybe I found a loophole in the way the world works.

All of these things are paradoxes—two contradictory concepts that are somehow held to be of one truth. A schism is opened in the mind, yet it is spanned by imagination and love. What if? Again, I implore the reader to look beyond the material world, beyond the words on the page and the inanity of the physical events. Instead, wrap yourself in a cosmic cloak and try to see the world from a different perspective: one that embraces unity despite the perception of plurality.

There’s no point in Nothingness, you stooge…
I have a friend who asked me about how I can believe in the thing I call Nothingness. He said it’s depressing—believing in nothing. But it is not just the Nothingness that I embrace. It is the Something as well. It is a mind-splitting act, schizophrenic in a sense, to see the world paradoxically as both a something and a nothing.  To do so requires both a divesting of all we know and an investing with something we don’t know.

Without both sides of the paradox—if all I believed in is the Nothingness, I would be a void myself, a pointless Nihilist who sees no connection between my material body and the material of the rest of existence. I could destroy without ramification, live without expression, imagination, or love. I could.

But, as the Buddha said (I just read a book that had this quote in it; it’s a great quote): “It is worse if you get caught in the non-self of a flower than if you believe in the self of a flower.” If we worship only the Nothingness, we forfeit the opportunity to be a part of the great gift that is the only experiential aspect of the Nothingness. I am not a Nihilist. I am far from one. Every moment, whether it be blessed by bliss or searing pain, is sacred. I am not perfect at always remembering that. I often fail. But I try.

A connection to life…
Perhaps I’m thinking too deeply. Maybe this story is just about some immature kid walking through the woods, writing bad entries, drinking and eating in town, being boring. At one point in my life, I would have agreed. Thinking this way reminds me of how I felt when I read a bunch of children’s stories about a year ago: Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Peter Rabbit. And at first, I thought, “Why can’t these stories just be about a wooden boy, or a strange flying boy fighting pirates, or a bad little rabbit?” I thought the stories were simple—I thought they were self-contained. But then I started to invest myself in them. In time, I saw something more: a connection to life itself.

Awareness of life demands deeper understanding. We may fail in the attempt at that understanding oftentimes, but at least we can try. So I want to thank you for trying. I want to thank you for reading this story.

These ideas may seem lofty, but that is the beauty of our ability to imagine. As you read this book, invest yourself and claim my journey as your own—as a reader, you will write this story just as much, if not more than I. Do not think that this story is self-contained. No story is. So take what you want from my words above. Synthesize what information you will. Once you take the time to read of my journey, it becomes your own. I just hope that in making it your own, you make it something good.

Adventures of a Trail Stooge Excerpt

Here’s a short excerpt from the upcoming Adventures of a Trail Stooge. Look for it July 28th!

My allergies are killing me. They won’t go away. Sleeping is a pain. During the day when I’m hiking it’s not too bad. But night time is not the right time.

Me, Munchies + Tangy all hiked together today. It was only 11 miles, but it felt like 20. My feet were pretty banged up, the blisters popped on the hike. But nothing too terrible. We took a lot of breaks today, too many, which made the day really too long.

I like those dudes, but not sure if I can stick with them, I won’t make Katahdin. Dude named Scott was with us today too, but he came into camp maybe an hour after.

I’m in my tent now and these birds are singing to each other. One sounds like he’s in a  tree right next to me, it’s cool. We’re at Low Gap Shelter tonight. Scott just posted up like 5 feet from my tent. Little weird, but he is.

I’ve been sleeping terribly. Getting into bed at a decent hour, but not really getting to sleep until like 2am. Then I sleep til 7 or whatever. It’s partially allergies and partially tent sleeping. Oh well, hopefully it gets better.

I talked to Mom + D last night. Mom did good. Started to cry just a little bit as we said goodbye. But she was excited for me. I liked that. And D sounded good too. I do miss everyone though. It’s a little weird being so dislocated. But this is what I wanted.

I may go into town in the next few days. So I may be able to update the blog then. I have a few good topics to write on as well as my trip’s summary so far. I’m going to sleep now. Ah, forgot one thing. I have the start of a trail name. It started as Barkley (Charles Barkley) because Tangy thought I said “terrible” a lot. Then it changed to Sir Charles Gouloins (your balls) because Tangy liked when I called balls gools. But now I want Stooge involved in it somewhere. So I’m trying for Sir Stooge Goulons. But Tangy still wants Charles involved in it somewhere. So we’ll see where it ends up tomorrow! Alright time for bed! Night.

May 10 Notes: All four of us had a rough couple days, Munchies especially. He wore big, heavy boots and he blistered up a lot. His knees were also giving him trouble. He was wetting handkerchiefs in streams and wrapping them around his legs in an attempt to alleviate the swelling and pain. Tangy, always the joker, reminded Munchies that a soggy handkerchief around a knee does little for the knee’s pain.

Scott took the name Nine Nails due to injuries sustained on the trail. One of his toe nails came off from trauma. Two days later, he would go by the name Eight Nails for obvious reasons.

I tended to my blistered feet, happy to be free from any serious injury, yet worried about the possibility of one. The threat of injury and pain was ever present on the trail: sometimes it was dark and overbearing, other times it was light and distant. But I was also worried about intangible injury: the weakness of my will to thru-hike. When I told people I was hiking the AT, they would almost always ask, The whole thing? I’d tell them that I was trying to thru-hike. With that statement, I insulated myself from the threat of bodily and moral injury. I was a ghost hiker, walking painful miles without resolve, afraid of looking like a fool if I went home early: so I just said I was trying. And at Low Gap Shelter, trying seemed pretty brutal. As Munchies struggled with his knees and Nine Nails lost toenails, I repressed the urge to stop walking. But deep in my mind I knew I could quit the trail and be done with it: a finality both freeing and devastating.