Sophistication is relative. Cable television and the Internet notwithstanding, your kids do not know about record players or the LPs played on them. They do not ask how cell phones invisibly thatch the empty air, and the sight of a rotary dial would utterly flummox them. Weaned on Velcro, they do not master the technique of tying their shoes, much less appreciate the longstanding debate between advocates of the One-Loop Method and the Two, until they are much older than you were when you mastered and appreciated. Surrounded by unprecedented sexual reference, the whole spectrum of seduction from explicitness to innuendo, they remain mistaken in their assumptions about sex (although it must be admitted that they make more ingenious mistakes than we did). And they cannot tell time.
Well, they can, but the time they tell is different than the time we told and have continued to tell ever since. In fact, the time that presides over their lives is more specific than what gets us up for work and occupies the actuaries. Thanks to their having been principally exposed to digital clocks, time points at them more sharply than our own appointments do. While adults typically divide their days into segments no smaller than ten minutes or so, kids can tell you down to the very moment when they drifted off last night. “I fell asleep at 9:53,” my daughter once told me, and I imagined her keeping a diary like the docket book of an IRS agent. Indeed, there are digital clocks that report second-by-second read-outs as well, so that the obsolete ticking I remember as a child punctuating my fading concentration in the dark has been replaced by a device that pinches off and disposes of the tiniest increments of time like so many embedded ticks.
But even though today’s kids may know their component moments more precisely than we did or do, it is a different kind of time they abide by. Because of the clocks and watches I grew up with and still envision when I encounter “clocks” in conversation or witness “watches” on the page, I think of time as progressing and departing in a circular fashion. For me, time moves like a hoop rolling toward a vague horizon. Digitally defined children, on the other hand, must perceive of time as numberless instants milling at the edge of a cliff and dropping off, like regimented lemmings, one by one. Or as meat sliced to transparent thinness by the butcher, who is the closest counterpart to Atropos they understand. Or as passengers abandoning the sinking ship of their lives yet keeping the line straight, maintaining decorum, as they meet the sea. So it goes for them, snip, snip, snip, while our hours more or less ooze away. The point is that when we refer to time before them, how it passes and passes us by, so that we feel the way we feel when a stranger rubs across us on a subway, a stranger whose face we might have stopped to ponder, whom we might even have come to love, if only we had realized, if only we had had the time, they do not know what we are talking about.
According to the International Bottled Water Association, whose business it is to know, the average adult body is composed of between fifty and sixty-five percent water. As it happens, men are more watery than women, which is something of a surprise in view of the notorious tidal proclivity of female biology, but no matter. Babies, meanwhile, weigh in at an astounding seventy percent water, the better to cushion them during birth and other inevitable early-life buffeting. Our blood is eighty-three percent water, our muscles seventy-five percent. Even our bones, our supposed solid-state circuitry, are twenty-two percent water. It is amazing that we circulate intact; it is a wonder that whenever we step we do not slosh or pool where we sit. According to the International Bottled Water Association, we are pretty much bottled water, too. Eulogists may measure our progress “from dust to dust,” but it is likelier to think we liquefy.
Given this affinity, I wonder why I found it so hard to snatch that rubber ring from the floor of the pool in summer camp. All of us had to pass the test before moving on to the landed activities I preferred and for which I felt I was better suited. But while the rest of the campers had managed to accomplish the task and were off hiking or playing ball, I was dunking myself all morning with no success, the only kid who foundered at the five-foot level -- just me and the counselor who’d been exiled with me and likewise denied the day’s pleasures. It was apparent to both of us that persistence was futile. Although I could vaguely aim my way toward the target, I could not open my eyes under water, so my efforts were never better than hypothetical. And the water would not have me: I had barely begun to flail blindly about the bottom for the sunken lifesaver before I burst up gasping again. Going by the force of his encouragement and ridicule, I realized that the counselor’s honor and mine were at stake; my own stubbornness, not any physical law, was preventing us from joining the others. He suffered my clumsy plunges over and over again. But the water kept refusing me, and each time, except for a throat full of it, I came up empty.
Years later, I would read about how Virginia Woolf, like a freshman hazed into daring, loaded her pockets with stones so the Thames would accept her into the sorority of the dead. The “down-soaring dead,” James Dickey calls them, supreme in their sinking. I would read about the boy in Flannery O’Connor’s story who kept being denied the Kingdom of Christ he believed lay beneath the river’s surface; he, too, had to prove his worth before he could earn the afterlife. If you buy such examples, drowning can be a gathering into something greater and serene, an insertion as smooth as a letter sliding into its envelope, tucked away for eternity. Then every day from that death on will be lost on you, and innumerable nights. Such a soft and dreamy end must be nothing but parenthesis, a permanent state of afterthought. But the metaphor must take you in before the water will.
On that summer day, I failed to live up to my nature. “Such is the endlessness, yea, the intolerableness of all earthly effort,” confessed Melville’s Ishmael, who also ended his efforts dazed and waterlogged. After wasting over an hour trying, I was finally fished out for lunch.
In 1993, spring rains so innundated the Upper Midwest that the earth began giving up its coffins. Unleashed from the long bad dream of death, they rose through the water, tumbling upward and blind -- organisms still and after all they’d succumbed to -- noiseless and inexorable, obeying invisible laws, they climbed, until they broke the surface of a decade not one of them had ever expected to see. (Olly, olly oxen free, we would call, surrendering the game because the day had grown dark.) It was the way fish might die, ascending to drown against the atmosphere; think of hundreds at once swooning out of their element, dying toward the light. As though prematurely summoned to Judgment or rehearsing for Glory, the dead departed their sodden graves and, having to improvise in the absence of a Savior, made their aimless way over the flood plain. (Oly, oly ocean free, as a different dialect would have it.) A lavish, epic ascent, with each coffin a Cleopatra’s barge laid against a vertical axis, indolent though on the move.
They took their cue from Ishmael aboard Queequeg’s coffin, riding their destinies, or like Viking warriors made their last voyage out. Seven hundred caskets deserted Hardin, Missouri, alone. A flotilla out of a horror film, a veritable exodus of the dead, their devoured bodies roused to unpredictable business in the world they’d presumably left forever. One newspaper recalled Night of the Living Dead, the cult film in which some radioactive glitch rouses a ravenous band of corpses to leave the ground and come after us. (All, all out are in free.) Religious leaders had to quell rumors among their congregations, assuring them that, in spite of the symptoms, it was not time for resurrection yet.
Prompted by local psychologists, parents promised their children that there was no need to fear either the undead or the eternal, depending on the particular nightmare they had to contend with. Depending on the particular nightmare, they promised that we won’t stay buried or that we will.
The phenomenon is more common than you might think. Research reveals that in cemeteries everywhere the dead refute their tombs. In Pineville, North Carolina, for example, Hurricane Floyd sprung so many coffins that the Coast Guard had to be called out to corral them. Fortunately, the practice of stamping coffins with ID numbers helped facilitate the process of tracing them back to the funeral homes they had originated from and, ultimately, to the families who had purchased them. Andrew Ritter, executive director of the North Carolina Board of Mortuary Science, made a point of assuring the local community that the caskets posed no health risk.
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” England is a civilization so old and whose space for corpses is so compacted that it is said that undertakers would routinely dig up coffins to re-employ the graves. In doing so, they often discovered scratch marks on the undersides of the lids, meaning that those folks had been buried alive. To combat this problem, they would sometimes tie a string to the wrist of the seemingly deceased, which led up through the ground and was attached to a bell. That way, someone sitting the “graveyard shift” could be alerted by that “dead ringer,” who would then have a chance to be “saved by the bell.”
Thus we may be spared the hazard. Thus we are assured.
Some ran aground and burst, producing spawn too awful for the television news to show, lest the children ask questions, lest they have to bed down with that imagery and intimations of mortality, the sullen ultimacies, which are the things that go bump in the night. (Andrew Marvell contemplated “The mind, that ocean where each kind / Does straight its own resemblance find.” Imagine that the earth itself were such a mind, with all of us afloat in that massive and restless limbic system.) When the waters receded, some of the cadavers had docked in people’s yards or even shunted up against their front doors, like accusing ghosts who come knocking in a tale by Poe. (First, a preemptive thunk too heavy for a human hand to produce. Parents tell their children to pull up their covers -- it’s nothing, they say -- then close the curtains and secure the locks.) Some settled against the bases of trees as if staking out shady picnic spots. Three came to rest in a grocery store parking lot. One, when the waters receded, was found stuck in the branches of a tree, further complicating the fate of Milton’s Lycidas, who had also “sunk low, but mounted high.”
They entered the rushing water like drugs dissolving in the bloodstream, time-released.
What haunted us most of all was that there were so many of them. So many still demanding, denying their final resting places, departing their plots. So many prodigal among the fatally impacted and prone to embark. Street gangs do not match them for delinquency, these emergent, unmurderable forms. “Unwept, and welter to the parching wind, / Without the meed of some melodious tear.” The stealth and errancy of the dead. Their waywardness does not end with the end of them.
Some cemeteries in Mississippi that date back to the eighteenth century have been regularly gutted by catastrophic weather, revealing how many of the dead had turned over in their beds, slipped into adjoining graves -- promiscuous even as they moldered -- or broken out altogether. Because of the water table, the instability of the dead is so frequent a problem in Louisiana that people have their loved ones encrypted above ground, thereby shortening by a few feet, anyway, their leap into ether and the after all, out of consequence and out of time.
“Ask me what’s the key to comedy?”
Looking into her mirror, Sylvia Plath would have gotten that one. Seeing into her age that way, her amortization schedule laid out before her like that, she finds the layered skins of resident selves awaiting her and already dying. The mirror becomes a lake where a young girl has drowned, a grown woman treads water, and an old woman whom she recognizes and denies rises toward her daily from the depths of reflection “like a terrible fish.” Plath would have appreciated the joke at her expense. As for the precise image she saw when she struck through the mask, we must depend on conjecture, for she was barely thirty when she ended it, and all the pictures we have of her show her still brimming with possibility, and so young. Plath, who wrote as though she were being pursued, whose poems were at best a rickety bridge over oblivion. Lazing about, people talk about killing time, but the truth is that it’s always the other way around, and Plath would undoubtedly have gotten that one as well.
Ishmael reminded us that every man is a Narcissus fixed by his own features: “We ourselves see in rivers and oceans.” The watch we keep is relentless.
What arrested Plath was nothing she could see for sure. Put it this way: she could not discover a philosophy to save her in time.
Physics would have us believe that what looks like a solid form is not solid at all. This goes beyond erosion and entropy, whose thieving we’ve long been familiar with. It goes beyond the steady, radiant decay of subatomic structures, as everything leaks out of a hole in Creation’s pocket. I mean that what seems solid ground is really as restless in its packing as a subway platform at rush hour. And every object’s rush hour is ongoing. Atoms are always on the move, reconnoitering and wedging against each other like the crowd at the World Cup, so that, in theory, one might pass his hand through the molecular bustle of a brick if he timed it right. With luck he could draw it back out again intact, or as intact as things ever pretend to be.
My grade school marked an anniversary of its founding with the burial of a time capsule. We composed the past, as it were, a la carte: the capsule contained a conventional set of readily obtained mementoes, which I will not bother to list. Suffice to say, they were not missed by those chosen to inter them, nor could I envision any future generation designated to unearth them anticipating the date with any eagerness. To impress upon us the profundity of the occasion, our class was assigned the task of devising and burying time capsules of our own. In this business I sided with the coffee can contingent, disdaining those who opted for cigar boxes as shortsighted. Troweling in the empty lot behind our condominium for the better part of an hour, I managed to core out a hole sizeable and deep enough to contain it, and I stuffed it in and covered it up without ceremony. But I never had to chance to determine how effectively my booty would brook time because I kept digging it up. It must have been because I hoped to catch posterity in the act. Lying in bed at night, I would imagine some secret subterranean turbulence assaulting my stuff, and a shiver would go through me. I’d let only a few days go by before I was back at the site, poking my nose in, fuddling the experiment. (It doesn’t take a physicist to tell you that observation tickles the event, and the hand of the scientist soils whatever it sets in place and is tainted in turn.) Unearthing the can and peeling off the plastic lid, I was satisfied and disappointed at the same time to find my key chain, class picture, plastic decoder ring, dollar bill, and baseball cards unchanged, while the apple I’d deposited with them had altered no more exotically than it would have on the kitchen counter.
Over time I’ve lost touch—I no longer have the can or its contents, and I cannot recall exactly where I’d planted and replanted them in that vacant lot behind our building, which may not be vacant anymore anyway. (I haven’t lived there in thirty years and haven’t been back to see.) One way or another, I can’t disturb the experiment again. It has all been consigned to time. Which is to say that the experiment in the end has been useless or successful, depending on your point of view.
What I have located, however, is a passage I’d been looking for in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Housekeeping, in which heaven is highlighted by the prospect of recovering all that’s ever been stolen, misplaced, or squandered. All that’s drowned or fallen away, all the perishables in our experiences and on our shelves, all the orphaned universe salvaged from the catastrophe of time. At least, that’s the question the author begs: “What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?”
Discovering the line you’re looking for when you’re groping about in your books—confirming that it hasn’t been distorted over the years or dissolved altogether—is heartening. It tempts me to speculate about the rest of what’s lost to that conjectural heaven, warehoused there among the missing rings and revenants, the artifacts, attachments, and angels. I suspect that I might eventually lay my hands on them or, barring that, remember. I’d like to think it is only a matter of time.
©2003 by Arthur Saltzman