OK … Time to ‘fess up … I admit it … I need a break … I’m tired of ranting about Donald Trump, the story of Frankenstein-as-Donald Trump, my Dad and D-Day as antitheses of Donald Trump, etc., etc., etc., etc. I suspect you are tired of hearing me rant, too. Understandable. I need a change of subject. Probably you do, too. So let’s change the subject and talk about something else, something pristinely apolitical and un-Trump-connected or even un-Trump-adjacent. An alternate rant, if you will.
So what shall we talk about?
I know! Let’s talk about burrowing garden hoses!
I was only 6 years old, living in Wichita, KS, and just starting the first grade in 1955, but despite being that young, I vividly remember reading stories in the newspaper about garden hoses simply burrowing into the ground and, over time, just disappearing. It was kinda frightening in a way … yet with a strong fillip of X-Files fascination. Skipping kindergarten didn’t help. In fact, the year I would have spent in kindergarten only gave me an extra year to obsess about matters weird, “meta,” and “para”. For in lieu of a year of kindergarten — which was optional in Wichita, anyway — my parents had kept me at home so my mother could spend what would have been my kindergarten year teaching me to read and write so I could hit the ground running in first grade. I think I learned all too well. I strongly suspect that at times my parents regretted my precociousness, because once the vanishing-garden-hose stories started to appear, I would follow my parents around the house, dragging today’s or yesterday’s newspaper behind me and pestering them with questions about what could be causing the hoses to vanish, where they went, etc., etc.
What really intrigued me during this time, though, was a story in a comic book about a man whose garden hose burrowed into the ground. He became obsessed with trying to pull it out. When he failed to respond to his wife’s call to dinner, she discovered that the man himself had vanished, too, whereupon she called the police and fire departments, which launched an exhaustive weeks-long search for the man … to no avail. In the final couple of panels of the story, however, the man, apparently unharmed, simply walks back onto his property – from where, we are never told — to the relief of his wife and the search parties. In the final panel of the story, he looks out at the reader and says solemnly (I’m paraphrasing) “If your garden hose starts to disappear, don’t try to get it back. Let it go. They need it down there”. Cue Twilight Zone theme.
That is my earliest memory of being persistently interested in matters “weird” or “paranormal” or Fox-Mulder- / Dana-Scully-ish. But the garden-hose mystery probably would have been forgotten, even so, had it not been that, a few years later, Wichita experienced its own UFO “flap”: a “fiery object” – I still remember that description of it in the Wichita Eagle – had been sighted over several nights by several widely separated observers across the city. I don’t remember any photographs, but there was a pretty good drawing of it in the Eagle a few days after the “flap” started. I also remember Dad coming home from work one day and telling about a couple of his friends in the shop at Beech Aircraft describing their own sightings. So, as is still typical with me, I began to devour everything I could get my hands on about the UFO phenomenon. (Best I recall, it was in this same general time-frame that the big “mega-flap” started, when dozens of UFOs were seen skipping and cavorting in Washington, DC, many over the Capitol building.) A couple years into this, I had a fateful encounter: I discovered Fate magazine.
I now inhabited two worlds. On the one hand, I was still a nerdy kid who was intensely interested in science, especially astronomy, and math, who hesitated to believe anything he could not see, empirically experience, measure, and quantify according to the exacting methodological canons of the scientific method. (Trust me: I was the life of the party at our fundamentalist-Baptist potluck dinners!) But on the other hand, I was beguiled by the seductions of the mystical, the intuitive, the metaphysical – the more “meta,” the better — what you might generically call the spiritual. I had science and math textbooks for the former. I had Fate magazine for the latter – pretty much a smorgasbord of phenomena from the “para” world: UFOs, parapsychology, the paranormal, séances, poltergeists, astral projection, etc. I was a pint-sized Fox Mulder before there was a grown-up Fox Mulder. Between the two – between what you might call “physics” and “metaphysics” – I was in essentially the same position as the character Mr. Clarke in Arthur Machen’s great horror novella The Great God Pan, who lives in a daylight world of financial advising and in the twilight of mystical speculation.
“Mr. Clarke … was a person in whose character caution and curiosity were oddly mingled; in his sober moments, he thought of the unusual and the eccentric with undisguised aversion, and yet, deep in his heart, there was a wide-eyed inquisitiveness with respect to all the more recondite and esoteric elements in the nature of men … [H]e secretly hugged a belief in fantasy, and would have rejoiced to see that belief confirmed.”
So would I, and — I must admit — that remains true to this day, though I am loathe to admit it. In my “daylight” periods, I “think of the unusual and eccentric with undisguised aversion,” yet “deep in [my] heart, there [is] a wide-eyed inquisitiveness with respect to all the more recondite and esoteric elements” about the Universe and life. I am very — dare I even say, “exceptionally” — susceptible to those “spots of time” to which Wordsworth referred in his great autobiographical poem “The Prelude”:
“There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence–depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse–our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired.”
One of my most vivid such “spots of time” was a trip Diane and I took to Ireland. We started in Dublin, but took a bus west across the width of Ireland to Galway, and after dinner, ended up wandering across Eyre Square in the middle of Galway and into the wonderful old Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas, built in the 1200s. It was a damp, drizzly, foggy twilit early evening, and the interior of the Church was, not pitch-dark, but shadowy. What leaped to my mind as I wandered around visiting the various shrines, including the tomb of a 12th-century knight, were some lines from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets poem “Burnt Norton,” lines I wasn’t even aware I knew from memory (boldface added):
“Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.”
Of course, these “intimations of immortality” — to recur to another Wordsworth poem — are far separated from UFOs, spoon-bending, and poltergeists, but they and my experience in the Church do tend, I think, in the same general direction, the latter being a refinement of the former: toward a quest for “Other-ness”, the same quest Tennyson’s Ulysses embarked upon toward the end of his life. I would even describe it as a quest for Joy a la C. S. Lewis, though I can no longer accept Lewis’s religious gloss on the experience in his The Weight of Glory:
“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
In Mere Christianity, Lewis goes on to argue that the existence of this desire for joy warrants the conclusion that the Source of such joy — God — therefore exists. The alternative is to believe — as Camus asserts in, e.g., The Myth of Sisyphus — that human life in the Universe is absurd because humans have certain desires — like joy — that the Universe, qua Universe, adamantly refuses to grant us. I tried to follow Lewis’s path for 50-plus years, but was always frustrated, and finally depressed, far more often than I was fulfilled. So I opted for Camus: construct your own Purpose, your own Telos, your own Final Cause, out of the raw materials that you find readily and real-ly to hand, be they Fate magazine, UFOs, poetry, your father-in-law’s funeral, or moments of kensho in medieval churches. Lewis was partially right, except that I have come to believe that there is no Source of Joy … only sources.
And … oh yeah … try not to think too hard or too often about Donald Trump … damn! … there I go again!
© 2016, James R. Cowles, All rights reserved
Disappearing garden hose, photo and story … “Weird Universe”, 2013
“Fate” Magazine … Curtis Publishing Co., 1948
X-Files logo … fair use
Alleged UFO image … public domain
Joy on the beach … public domain