In the Mental Architecture of the Deceased
By Chase Dimock
Five years ago, my father, grandfather, and I remodeled the bathroom in our family cabin. This was no luxury ski chalet or time share condo masquerading as a cabin. My great-grandfather built it himself in the 30s with the help of his five daughters and the boy scout troop he lead. Great-grandpa was not a master carpenter or plumber, so as we tore away the rotting drywall and jackhammered the cracked cement floor, we discovered an unexpected and unconventional layout of pipes. It was a map of kludges, improvisations, and applications of sheer brute force.
The more Dad and Grandpa studied how the pipes were fashioned and connected, the more it became clear that the success of the remodeling job became dependent on interpreting Great-Grandpa’s plumbing choices, and then predicting where the pipes would take us. They had to think like Great-Grandpa, and in the process, his cognition and imagination became reanimated. The pipes were a network of thought like the neural pathway of synapses in his mind. Debates between Dad and Grandpa over the next step in the project evolved into nostalgic appreciations of Great-Grandpa’s resourcefulness. They were once again enveloped in the creative vision of a man who built his own carnival rides and managed to keep a citrus grove thriving during the severe rationing of WWII.
If you clicked over here from Facebook or Twitter, you are probably wondering why I am beginning a remembrance of Okla Elliott with an anecdote about plumbing. My Great-Grandpa died well before I was born, so the experience of a man’s resurrection through exploring his handiwork was only secondhand. I could see it in Dad’s and Grandpa’s faces, but I could not feel it directly. Last August, when I took over As It Ought To Be following Okla’s untimely passing, I finally experienced this phenomena first hand.
As the new Managing Editor, I have been combing through nearly a decade of articles on As It Ought To Be. This has meant figuring out formatting, style, and organization as Okla had established them, and charting how he evolved in these ways. I’ve read through all of the posts Okla authored from the beginning of the site to his final article about Lent and its political and social possibilities posted just weeks before he unexpectedly passed. Just as the plumbing revived the spirit of Great-Grandpa for my father and grandfather, so too has editing and organizing As It Ought To Be kept Okla’s voice as a writer and thinker perpetually resonant in my mind.
Although I have known Okla since right around the founding of As It Ought To Be, one tends to forget how people were when you first knew them. You don’t always remember them as they ended either. Rather, you remember people for their established role in your life and you preserve them in that stance. You build a home for them in the structure of your existence, and when they die, that’s where they stay, beautifully enshrined in your memory as a witness and an ally. This would be the Okla of 2010-2014, when we were grad students drinking Bushmills, debating Sartre, and geeking out over the genius of Professor Cary Nelson. Like so many published here on As It Ought To Be and in many of his other creative endeavors, he encouraged me to expand my mind, amplify my voice, and apply my sense of reason and empathy toward engaging with the world’s social issues and political problems.
Reviewing Okla’s writings and editorial work has reacquainted me with the younger, wildly ambitious Okla, and introduced me to the older, more circumspect Okla with whom I wish I had spent more time after I graduated and bounced around the country. As I edit the site, I find myself more and more thinking like Okla, most notably in the joy I take in providing a spotlight for the work of my talented friends. And yes, like my Great-Grandfather’s patchwork of pipes, Okla left plenty of ingenious kludges and creative engineerings for me to smooth out as I have begun to archive the site. I’m slowly putting together more organized and navigable collections of past articles while considering how to preserve his vision through necessary remodelings and additions for As It Ought To Be’s progress into the future.
Throughout this process, one nagging worry has loomed over me; memory is malleable. Every time we remember something, we change it. We access it differently, and then add that moment of access to the memory. It’s as if every time you play a tape, the ambient noise of the room in which you played it is added to the song. I worry that the act of remembering distances us from the original affect of its experience to the point where we can no longer access it directly. Men and moments become replaced by their mythologies, and while this is how we carry them into the future, a part of me wants to reach back and relive moments that have not been codified into a monument.
I challenge myself to remember without memorializing, knowing this is nearly impossible. What can I remember that is authentic to the moment in which it happened, and not just a generalized narrative my memory has woven out of collected experiences? I remember Korean tacos, extremely cold walks around the library late at night, how he liked living in on-campus housing even though the apartments looked like Cold War era bomb shelters inside. I remember when he went with me to a memorial for teenage LGBT victims of suicide and I cried uncontrollably.
I remember that over one Summer, he lost a considerable amount of weight, and when I returned that Fall, he seemed so much smaller than I remembered him. But after a few minutes of talking, his stature immediately inflated back to feeling ten feet tall. I guarantee that the majority of Okla’s friends misremember how tall he actually was because his personality enveloped every room he entered.
Although I am fortunate to have not lost many people close to me, I have learned that after someone dies as a biological organism, there are several other layers of their being that die at different intervals. Obviously the most painful is the loss of their presence. The second most dreaded is the moment when nothing new will come from them. If you can keep uncovering new things about them posthumously, one of the most beautiful parts of their life remains operational. That layer remains alive. In the memoir Maus, Art Spiegelman plunges into deep despair when he learns his father had burned his deceased mother’s diaries. The idea of reading new words and experiencing new ideas from his mother promised to bring her back to life, and their burning further cemented the painful reality of her passing. The fact that artists like Prince die with huge catalogs of unreleased material eases the grief of their passing.
Managing As It Ought To Be has kept Okla very much alive for me in this sense because I am constantly coming across something he had crafted that I had not seen before. It’s been oddly Proustian at times. I’ll come across something Okla drafted or edited, and a certain phrase will suddenly trigger a memory, reminding me of a time we discussed this topic, or just a momentary visualization of the expression on his face that I know he had as he wrote it.
Reposting his article on Lent a few weeks ago reminded me of the arguments we used to have over religion. In grad school, he was an ardent atheist. He could not believe that I could maintain my faith given how terribly the church has treated some minority populations such as LGBT people. This was a completely valid argument. He knew that this was the most contradictory and fragile element of my professed beliefs, and like any philosopher challenging what seemed unreasonable, he aimed directly for it. And yet, I knew he was not trying to disable me. Rather, he was sparring with me. If I was going to stand on this principle, it needed to be swifter and more resilient. After many of our debates, my ideas came home bloodied and bruised, and sore in the morning, but became far stronger in the long run.
In the final years of his life, Okla became receptive to the teachings of the church. Inspired by the new pope, he began writing about theology and social justice. I regret that I never had the chance to revisit this topic with him. What did he read or hear that spoke to him? I hope someday I’ll get the opportunity to read his unfinished writings and begin round two of our conversation.
About the Author: Chase Dimock is the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship has appeared in College Literature, Western American Literature, and numerous edited anthologies. His works of literary criticism have appeared in Mayday Magazine, The Lambda Literary Review, Modern American Poetry, and Dissertation Reviews. For more of his work, check out ChaseDimock.com.