by Tim Gilmore, 3/15/2016
At various times in her life, “pockets” she called them, or “folds,” words had fascinated her, but most days of most years, nothing much interested her at all.
The new word she’d learned was “anhedonia,” the complete inability to feel joy or pleasure.
Lately, however, one sight broke through: the streets streaked with neon yellow-green pollen dried in scabs across the asphalt where the recent rains had knocked the pollen from the air.
She listened to the soft fuzzy hum of the air-conditioning in her parents’ house, sometimes for hours. At least the anxiety had gone. In its place, merely a vacuum, as if all existence and space and time were but the soft fuzzy hum of air-conditioning in a modest suburban Florida house.
She reminded me of Emily Dickinson lines: “As all the Heavens were a Bell, / And Being, but an Ear,” but in her case, all the heavens were the hum of central air-conditioning vents.
She’d come to my office to tell me she was withdrawing from the class. She was taking a full load of courses and couldn’t keep up. The balance of her medications kept tilting. She took pills for Bipolar Depression, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and Auditory Processing Disorder: “Those are the main ones.”
I told her I was glad she’d let me know, that she’d found the wherewithal to tell me.
“Wherewithal,” she repeated tonelessly.
I waited, unsure what to say.
“Where,” she said, then “With,” and finally the last syllable. She didn’t seem to be asking me what the word meant.
I gave her a phone number and a business card for a private psychological services firm with which the college contracts. Such a lame gesture embarrassed me. I’ve long resented the fact that Florida State College at Jacksonville offers no on-site counseling for our students. I’ve resented it when my students suffered heavy depression, when they slept in their broken-down cars at night, and when they sent me death threats.
I resented it most when Brent, 1987-2013, killed himself halfway through our second literature course together. The class was called “Legend Tripping,” a sociological term for pilgrimages made to sites of urban legends. Brent was so smart, so acerbic and witty. His mother called him “her reason for living.” She kept posting notes in his online obituary. “March 18. Today is my first birthday without you. I miss my tulips! I miss my son!”
“The hum of air-conditioning should be called Where With All,” she said.
She appreciated the fact that I’d asked the class to write a “place essay,” for which students needed to find a place in town for a subject and define its significance, but said she’d never been far from suburban Kernan Boulevard.
She’d always lived in Jacksonville, she said, but she’d never been there.
I understood exactly what she meant. It was part of the reason for the assignment, but it seemed pointless now to say so. Anhedonia / wherewithal / air-conditioning’s hum.
“There’s this great big tall tree in my back yard,” she said. “It’s a magnolia. It’s the tallest tree in the neighborhood. Actually it’s one of the only tall trees in the neighborhood.”
“I love magnolias,” I told her. Magnolia grandiflora. Magnolia derives from the French botanist Pierre Magnol, but Magnol is related to the Latin word magnus—“the great”! And grandiflora obviously means “great flower.” The tone of the Grateful Dead song “Sugar Magnolia” is all wrong.
The blooms burst open, big and brilliant, the whitest soft white glowing at night, and like gardenia blossoms, they bruise if you touch them. Even when not in flower, magnolias have the broadest, darkest-green, most august leaves and branch from such calm stalwart trunks.
“I stand in front of the magnolia,” she said in a monotone. “I go out there almost every night.”
“They’re such beautiful trees,” I said.
“I just watch it,” she told me.
“You watch the tree?”
“I just watch it. It’s like the air-conditioning, but I don’t know how. Oh, and I have this fantasy. It’s not really a fantasy like I’m picturing a story or anything. It’s just an idea I keep when I watch the tree.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“If I watch it long enough the right way, I think I can be like the tree.”
I asked her what she meant.
“Maybe grow some roots down under my feet,” she said, “Maybe put out my own leaves and flowers. Nobody would rush me. Nobody would criticize me. Nobody would grade me.”
I wish I could offer her a world that operated on different times, individualized schedules, but no, not even that, a world that operated not on schedules, but let each of us take the time we need to do what good work we need to do.
I told her I understood. I doubt that she believed me.
“I like that word,” she said. “Wherewithal. That’s what I feel when I imagine I’m the tree.”