by Tim Gilmore, 12/20/2019
1. Something Changed in the Nature of Time
I think I was eight years old. We were sitting in a booth at Burger King on Blanding Boulevard after Sunday morning church services. My mother hadn’t yet been diagnosed with ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which would fry her neural system from foot to, eventually, head. All my life, we’d attended Blanding Boulevard Baptist Church, just down the street, every Sunday morning, Sunday and Wednesday evening, and other weeknights for revival meetings.
The restaurant called Skeeter’s (which featured men playing fiddles over Sunday after-church lunch, and occasionally the yodeling of Slim Whitman) where my mother would fall and break her collarbone two years later, served collards and baby back ribs across the street.
I sat in that booth with my parents and their friends Bill and Flo. Flo had a big bouffant and a mole beside her mouth. Bill hadn’t yet chopped off his big toe while axing firewood beside their house trailer. When Bill told my father, “I like these California preachers I keep seeing on TV,” it vexed him woefully that Bill couldn’t tell him whom he meant.
The subject that morning, however, was time, and it frightened me.
I think it was my mother said something casually about how fast time flies. A framed print of Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post illustration The Breakfast Table, with its caption “Life Begins at Forty,” hung on our living room wall at home.
I’d never before heard that the older you get, the faster time goes. I didn’t like the news. I imagined that by the time I was my father’s age, the speed of time might panic me, make me dizzy.
It was either Bill or Flo who said, “Brother Mattison says even the teenagers are saying time goes by too fast.” Terry Mattison was the choir director and the church “youth” pastor.
“They’re just repeating what their parents say,” my mother replied.
“Brother Mattison doesn’t think so,” Flo or Bill said and restated the notion that time was speeding up now even for young people. I listened, rapt, wondering what fresh terror lay in store for me in the next few years.
Bill or Flo said, “Brother Mattison thinks something’s changed in the nature of time itself.”
2. Mapping Jacksonville
Eight years ago, I started chronicling my hometown explorations on my website, jaxpsychogeo.com, those last four syllables before “dot com” standing for “psychogeography,” the artistic exploration of the psychology of place. This story, if that’s what this loose stream of recollection is, is no. 500.
I started Jax Psycho Geo by accident. What I’d first written was a nonfiction postmodern novel that would tell the story of the city, my hometown, location by location. The novel would be as decentered as the city itself. As such, it would tell of grand dramatic historic happenings as well as the fall of a leaf and the nestling of a cat beneath a car in a suburban subdivision. Progenitors of the idea included William Carlos Williams’s Paterson and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. As an act of literary random sampling, I even liked that Jacksonville was so ordinary. It wasn’t the biggest or the best or the foremost anything. Then again, nothing is. Though some people call everything they do the biggest and best, superlatives are naïve.
The novel asked to be broken apart. It was always the nature of it anyway. Even a part is more than the sum of its parts. So I broke the novel into its constituents, titled each one according to the place around town where it happened, and started the website. Going forward, I’d add locations by story, add stories by location, make the project as big as I could make it. I didn’t know anything about how to attract readers to a blog or a website. I just focused on the writing.
I hit some strides. Each story I dug down into connected underground to others. I found stories nobody had told since the 1950s or 1880s and did my best to walk into and experience them. I developed that way of thinking: the stories are out there, out in the landscape. They don’t care if we find them or not. Finding the stories is our necessity, not theirs. They approach infinity. Every piece of a story you can break down into further stories and so on wearily. It’s stories all the way down.
That means I could work this project for the rest of my life. My best guess is that right now it contains about 800,000 words, but any number would always be just a start. If the whole project is one story, you could only ever say it’s mostly composed of holes. It’s impossible for the well to run dry, for the net to catch all the fish, for the (mixed) metaphor to make the point conclusively. I’ve often thought I should do that, work the project until I’m dead. I want each story to be the best it can be, but also see each individual work as part of the greater work and like the idea that I’m living the story of the perpetual telling of the stories.
The only applicable and practical question regarding those facts is whether I want to continue the project ad nauseum. Part of me does. Part of me wants to come to some arbitrary endpoint. The whole thing has grown organically anyway. So how about 500? How about JaxPsychoGeo being a literary mapping project and collection of 500 stories? Neat as a shot of bourbon. So I’ll say it: JaxPsychoGeo is a literary mapping project and collection of 500 stories. I’m already thinking about calling the following stories “500 Plus.” So now I’ll find out if I can successfully, all these years in, call it a day.
4. Dreams Since My Father’s Death, Dreams Since My Mother’s
What I’ve dreamt since my father died four months ago differs greatly from the dreams that followed my mother’s death 33 years ago this last October.
I was 12 when my mother died. I dreamt again and again of wandering through labyrinths, like the mazes I traced a pen through on the backs of cereal boxes, looking for her, always looking, never finding her.
Now I’m 45, still five years younger than my father was when I was born. I dream repeatedly that he’s not dead. All these dreams admit the fact that he died, but somehow he hasn’t died finally. Funding for in-home care could only last until January and in my dreams, I keep doing the tragic math. It’s almost Christmas, time’s running out, and those facilities that depend on state assistance reek of urine and hire employees who make the evening news for (about a month after my father died) slapping and choking 85 year old blind women. Though, in these dreams, I’m aware of all the times he’s died in previous dreams, none of the deaths are final.
Why did my prepubescent Unconscious tell me so instantly and absolutely that I’d never again see my mother, why does my adult mind keep telling me my father can’t be gone, and why, why this infinitely divisible difference?
5. “You Are My Choice”
It’s odd that I always thought these writings concerned themselves mostly with place, though my dreams advise me they equally explore and wander time. The two dimensions are, after all, correlatives.
My friend Jamie Burton and I spoke recently of our fathers. Hers is in his 90s. She told me of a lynching her father witnessed as a young black man in Live Oak, Florida, an hour and a half west of Jacksonville. In September, Jamie heard Tameka Bradley Hobbs of Florida Memorial University give a talk at the Museum of Science of History called “Strange Fruit in Florida.” The talk left her trembling, tears in her eyes, for Jamie “realized Dr. Hobbs was telling the same story [her] dad talked about for so many years.”
In fact, Willie James Howard was Jamie’s father’s cousin, one of his best friends, 15 years old, guilty only of giving Christmas cards to all his fellow employees at Van Priest Dime Store, including Cynthia Goff, who was white.
Willie was smitten with Cynthia, her eyes, her cheekbones and smile, her strange hair soft like new straw. She was all he could think about and when he churned up the courage to send her his “Xmas card,” all he could think about was what she might think about his card.
So he followed it up with a New Year’s Day note that began, “Dear Friend,” said, “I am well an hope you are the same. This is what I said on that christmas card. From W.J.J. with L. I hop you will understand what I mean.”
She did. And what he meant offended everything within her that she knew to be her. He worried she might feel the way she did, so he wrote:
“Now please don’t get angry with me because you can never tell what may get in some body I did not put it in there my self. God did I can’t help what he does can I.” In case Cynthia Goff couldn’t forgive God for making Willie love her, in spite of his skin color and race, he wrote, “I know you don’t think much of our kind of people but we don’t hate you all we want to be your all friends but you want let us.”
Finally, understanding the mortal danger of expressing his love, Willie wrote, “Please don’t let any body see this I hope I haven’t made you mad if I did tell me about it an I will forget about it. I wish this was northern state I guess you call me fresh. Write an tell me what you think of me good or bad.”
He followed his signature with a rhyme: “I love your name. I love your voice, for a S.H. [sweetheart] you are my choice.”
Cynthia didn’t feel the same. She showed the letter to her father, A.P. Goff, postmaster and former Florida state representative. Goff and two other white men kidnapped Willie at gunpoint from his mother’s house. They ordered Willie’s father James to leave work and ride with them to a spot on the Suwanee River where they hogtied Willie in front of his father and asked him if he’d rather be shot or thrown into the river. He chose the river and town officials called his drowning a suicide.
It seemed strange to Jamie that an academic’s treatment of the story her own father had told her all her life should make it more intimate. When we’re children, the stories our parents tell us are both magical and, paradoxically, the background furnishings of our daily, our mundane, our day-to-day lives.
I understood how a scholar’s attention made her father’s story real enough to bring her tears, real enough that she’d say to me, “It wasn’t so long ago after all. Even a hundred years just isn’t that long.” Someone recently told her the 1970s were ancient history. Time folds up, collapses.
A February 18, 2019 Washington Post story tells of how Frederick Douglass made amends with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on the very day Douglass died. Douglass, whose 1845 Narrative helped advance abolitionism and end slavery, died just less than 30 years before my father was born. Now, most of my college students were born in this yet-brand-new 21st century. I was born the year Nixon resigned in disgrace to avoid impeachment. Soon I’ll have students who can remember no president before Donald Trump and the difference between their normal and mine, in how we first understood our country, will spread out vast as North America.
6. Agnostic Time
Beside my keyboard, my qwertyuiop, glints and sparks in the dark granite I brought back from the Blue Ridge Mountains catch the dim light. I was thinking about time. I was thinking about granite. I was thinking that granite is igneous rock. Ignis, Latin, for fire; e.g., ignite, ignition—so igneous rock is volcanic. How am I holding volcanic rock from Catawba Falls in Pisgah National Forest? If we’re talking plate tectonics in North Carolina, how old must be this rock? I know the question can’t be answered, just as I doubt its terms and premise make sense.
Next I see that geologists date the oldest rocks in Western North Carolina at 1.8 billion years.
And now I’ve no idea what time might be, or who I am, or what I mean. Life begins at 40? Time flies? All these years in, call it a day?
Sic gloria transit mundi: Thus passes the glory of the world. The banality too. Thus passed my mother and now my father. Thus passed Tim Gilmore. Thus passed Norman Rockwell and William Carlos Williams and even Willie’s love for Cynthia Goff. The Suwannee River doesn’t know Stephen Foster wrote a song about it. This piece of granite knows not dinosaurs from Neandertals and has no idea of America. Billion-year-old rock has never heard of newcomers Jesus, Muhammad, the Buddha, Zoroaster, or Joel O’steen. Time acknowledges no one, recognizes nothing.
7. I Didn’t Know How to Say It
I grew up to know the story of my schizophrenic uncle, whom I never met, who saw people standing in the tops of pine trees and looking in through the farmhouse windows when no one was there. I grew up to know the story of my Aunt Anne, who died in 1956, 35 years old, when my father was 32, 18 years before I was born, when the married man she was screwing outran Georgia State Troopers on the red clay hills between Americus and Montezuma, and a tire blew, and the car flipped.
I had never seen a photograph of my Uncle James until my father died. Then I found a photograph of him standing by the Oglethorpe (Georgia) District school bus he drove and a photo of him at age 15, with my father at age 11, from 1935. These are images of James as my father knew him growing up, before James spent more than half a century schizophrenic, in another time, another world, which now seems never to have existed, though I have the pictures to say it did.
The world is always falling apart and always the world reorders itself. And the world, what people have made from the earth, is always so instantly old. And the earth perpetually, every instant, renews itself from death.
Because in De Rerum Natura, the Roman poet Lucretius says, “All things keep on in everlasting motion,” and says, “Out of the infinite come the particles.” I saw it in rotting leaves and butterfly wings when I was six or eight years old, but I didn’t know how to say it.
500, generative in all things’ nature, means 501. Because the world is too much with us. Because the earth, by definition, means renewal of the earth. Because perpetually the world decays and falls and churns into the earth. Because our stories are all that attest we exist or ever did.