In the Mental Architecture of the Deceased

In the Mental Architecture of the Deceased

By Chase Dimock

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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. Continue reading

“Language and Loss” By John Guzlowski

The ones we left behind.
My mother’s brother and his family.
The Soviet Union

My friend the writer Christina Sanantonio and I have been having a conversation about writing about loss. It’s a conversation fueled in part by the suicide of the novelist David Foster Wallace back in 2008. She wrote me a long letter about how we use or don’t use language to talk about loss, and about how hard it is to write about loss.

One of the things in her letter that really resonated with me was something she said about one of my favorite writers, Primo Levi, the Holocaust survivor and author of Survival in Auschwitz, who, like Wallace, apparently took his own life. Primo Levi frequently talked about the frustration of trying to write about loss and suffering, especially the loss and suffering he and so many others experienced in the Nazi camps. He felt we needed a new kind of language to talk about what happened there. Christina wrote that we ache for a language that doesn’t exist.

I’ve spent the last 35 years trying to find words to describe what happened to my Polish-Catholic parents in the German concentration and slave labor camps and what those experiences make me feel. I write about this event or that image; and no matter how powerful the original event described by my mother or father I can’t really describe it, explain it, bring it out of the past. I can’t bring it out of memory into this life. Instead, I’m left pushing around some words, trying to make myself feel what I felt the first time I heard that story when I was a child. Sometimes I think I almost succeed, but most of the time I know I’m not even close.

For me the poems that work best are the ones with my parents’ actual words in them. Those words are the real thing. In my poem “Here’s What My Mother Won’t Talk About,” my mother refuses to tell me anything about the murder of her mother and her sister and her sister’s baby and her own rape. All she will say to me is “If they give you bread, you eat it. If they beat you, you run. Likewise in my poem “The Work My Father Did in Germany,” my dad tells me what he said to the German guards who tormented and beat him and blinded him, “Please, sirs, don’t ever tell your children what you’ve done to me today.” There are bits and pieces of their words scattered throughout my poems, and when I read these words out loud my parents are there with me. I’m again a kid listening to my dad tell me about the day he saw a German soldier cut off a woman’s breast or listening to my mom tell me about the perfect house she lived in in the perfect woods in eastern Poland before the Germans came. My parents’ words are a kind of magic for me.

Continue reading

PLACE by John Dunn

Kansas City is a vast inland city, and its marvelous river, the Missouri, heats the senses; the maple, alder, elm and cherry trees with which the town abounds are songs of desire, and only the almonds of ancient Palestine can awaken the hungry pores more quickly.

-Edward Dalhberg, from Because I Was Flesh

The place to which I first belonged, which belonged to me then in flesh and belongs to me now in memory – memory visual, aural, tactile – was a 165-acre Hudson Valley farm. On the east bank of the river, just north of the village of Croton-on-Hudson, itself some forty miles north of New York City, overlooking the river from the crest of what seemed such a great hill to me then, the farm was no longer worked, but it was kept well.

Willard Brinton, a Quaker from Philadelphia, an engineer by training, owned the property with his wife. We had moved to a house that abutted the farm when I was four years old. Not long after I met two brothers, Mike and Geoff Sutherland – one older, one younger than me. They lived on the farm itself with their parents, who had bought a house from “old man Brinton”, as he was called behind his back. We became explorers and scouts, walking the property’s bounds, exploring hay ricks and caves, skirting the lake where, with our fathers, we would fish while our mothers sat on the steps of the cabin that fronted the lake and drank cheap sherry. We flushed a giant one early fall evening and went running to our fathers to tell them. Having encountered giants themselves when they were young, they did not discount our story, but instead went off in search of him. He was gone by the time we returned.

Ever restless, old man Brinton was always having something done on the property. One of the greatest of his works was a series of cascading ponds, formed by building a series of small dams on the stream that ran through the property and down into the Hudson. One was fitted with a diving board. There we swam, trying hard to jump on each other as we ran off the board. One day we spotted a huge snapping turtle in one of the upper ponds. “Big Mike”, my friends’ father, was able to lift it from the edge of a pond into a 55-gallon barrel filled with water. I don’t know why it deserved such confinement. We knew it could be dangerous to us, but his pond was not where we swam.

From the house where I lived, I could walk through the woods down to the railroad tracks that ran along the Hudson. Today’s parents would not think of letting their children do what we were allowed to do: cross those tracks to get to the river bank. But my father had grown up in New York City and my mother, an Englishwoman, had survived the Blitz in wartime London, so what harm could come to us? The tracks were a source of coal that fell from the steam engines’ coal cars and a source of the odd equipment – shovels, lanterns, mysterious tools and pieces of metal – that fell from the trains. One day my friend Geoff and I were standing on the river bank when a huge fish broke the water’s surface: its back seemed to go on forever. We ran screaming from the bank, flew across the tracks with no regard for what might be coming and fled through the woods back up to the house. Only years later did I realize that it was a sturgeon, probably one of the last of the very old ones that would migrate up the river.

We moved not long before I turned eight. My mother was expecting another child and the house which we rented was too small for four of us. So we found a house in the village itself. Was I now to live east of Eden? I don’t remember ever feeling that way. Before I had ridden the school bus, now I could walk to school. Having walked the metes and bounds of Brinton’s farm, having made it my own, I could now walk the village. Before the dangers were hayricks that could collapse, or mud that could suck you in if you weren’t careful. Now I needed to watch out for yard dogs off their leads and, worse, bullies whose prey I could become.

But the dangers were minor compared to what lay before me now. I could be sent on errands, walking and later riding my bike into the village center from the knoll where we lived. I had friends in every direction. Best of all I could walk to the library.

The library was housed on the second floor – no, I think it was the third – of the Municipal Building, an otherwise undistinguished three-story pile of brick that housed the village and the town offices, the police department and the local justice court. Tall-ceiling’ed, the walls lined with shelves, the shelves supplemented by free-standing bookcases that thrust out into the room like Manhattan piers, the library was presided over by a stern-faced woman who wore tweed suits and sensible shoes. The deference of children to adults was a given then, in the mid-Fifties and, as the librarian, she was to be treated with especial respect. Her’s was the final word on behavior: if she threw you out, there was no appeal. Rumor had it that several children had died under her stern gaze, but we never found their bodies and suspected that she encouraged this belief to keep us under control.

I needed no control in the library. It was the world made large for me.  I could walk into the books on the shelves and inhabit them, living inside the worlds they contained for as long as I liked. Then, as now, I would return home laden with books. I would haul them up to my room and only then discover which ones I really wanted to read. Looking now at my online library record, I see that I have out far more books than I can read in the time I have them. At least back then the librarian would look at my record and inform me that I had hit the limit and would have to bring some back before I took out any more.

Layers of place accreted over the years. Later, in high school, I discovered a passion for biology and would roam the woods and paths of my village. Heavily developed now – I no longer live there, but visit occasionally – then there were still large parcels of undeveloped land. They were not posted or, if they were, we paid no attention. My chief prey were the bullfrogs that inhabited a particular pond and swamp. I would return home covered with muck and reeking of swamp odor and would be directed to the back of the house where I stripped naked,  hosed myself off and, wrapped in an old towel reserved for the purpose, ran upstairs to take a shower before dinner.

All places have limits which we must sometimes cross and I crossed the limits of mine when, during Vietnam, I went into the Air Force. Returning “home” in 1968, I realized that it was not home any more and, anyways, I had planned to live in New York City. Which I did for several years, then moved overseas for a year. Only when I came back and then only when I moved upriver about twenty miles, did I begin to replant myself.

Perhaps it was then that I began to develop some wisdom and realize that, like a river, life tears at the banks of our lives, constantly reshaping them. Mine had been reshaped – by the war (though I was fortunate and did not serve in Vietnam), by life overseas and the attendant collapse of my first marriage – and I knew that I needed to stay in one place for a while. Which I have, thirty-five years, thirty of them in the same house. Which stands just one block back from the Hudson River, closer than I was to it when we first moved to Croton in 1950.

Can a river be a place? It can, but you have to step back to see it, to see how the river shapes the land as much as the land has shaped the river. To understand, as I did one bright morning, that I live not only on a river’s banks but on the coastline, because all the way up to Albany the Hudson River is, in fact, a tidal estuary, filling and emptying twice every day. It is the place where we launch our yellow kayak – a beamy little boat reminiscent of HMS MINNOW, Rat’s boat in THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS. We paddle out and then turn around to see the land from the river’s point of view.

Will I die here? I don’t know. I have tried living away from here and it does not work. Place is not simply a location, longitude and latitude. It is a wave from a car window, a “hello” yelled across the street, a joke shared over breakfast, a moment of silence for a friend suddenly dead by his own hand. The texture of the hand rail that you’ve gripped thousands of times, the sound that your tires make running over a particular stretch of road, reminding you that you’re coming up to a dangerous curve. It is, in the end, a vast web that runs wide and deep. Like the spider’s work, it can be repaired, but only up to a point. It requires diligence and hard work to be maintained.

Without it, though, we are dead long before we die.