Yes, this land is a great land, if by “this land” you mean the Ohio Valley or the Midwest or North America or even the giant plot of land that is the current territory of the United States of America. This is a continent of riches, riches that could sustain the many. But if by “this land” you mean the Republic for which the Stars and Stripes stand, there is no sense in which this land is great. It was built on Slavery and Genocide, expanded by War and the completion of that genocide. And currently it maintains a fragile global hegemony by exploiting its workers, importing cheap goods to appease those workers from counties that have outlawed slavery only in name, and is now putting the indigenous people who are migrating away from wars and violence that we helped to create in concentration camps. No, this republic is not fucking great. We happened to be on the “right side” of WWII. Great, some moral accomplishment. All we can say at this point is that we fought the Nazis 75 years ago. We outlawed chattel slavery and said that brown people have formal equality to whites. Great, we have done the barest minimum of making this a land for all. This republic encompasses some of the richest land in the world, land capable of providing for the human flourishing of multiple millions more than we already have, but instead the greatness of the land can be enjoyed only by the few. This land, in the sense of this country, this republic could have been great if our fore-bearers from Europe had encountered the indigenous people of this land and asked permission. For everything. Come to this land as guests and only moved here on invitation. But instead we have that stain of slavery and the theft of this land. This land is great; it is bountiful; it could provide a happy life for many multitudes for generations, but instead we turn the brown people looking for this land’s bounty away at our gates. No, we don’t just turn them away; we put them in cages to rot. Because for whatever greatness this land has, there is a rot in this land. Do you not realize that this isn’t the beginning of a possible future genocide. This is the latest phase of the European genocide of the indigenous people of the Western hemisphere. Do your fucking history. First as a tragedy, then as a farce. The tragedy at our foundation is obvious, but the farce is that no one understands how this is the repetition of that history. For us who remain inactive, their blood is on our hands, and when we think about what we would have done in 30’s Germany were we there, now we know. Now this land can only be great again if it becomes the land that is cared for by everyone for everyone in a way that generations can count on. The camps must be liberated. Then we must bring about justice. That won’t make America great. But it’s where we have to start.
During a year off of school while I was applying to grad programs, I took a job at the Purdue University Libraries to hold me over until my studies could resume. My desk there was thirty feet underground in the storage stacks where ancient periodicals and other books with low circulation were kept on movable shelving in a bomb shelter like basement of the undergraduate library. One of my duties there was replacing the old due date cards kept in manila pockets inside the covers of those old books and academic journals with bar codes. Instead of throwing out the cards with titles and Dewey Decimal numbers hand typed on the yellowing card stock, I kept them, and so the seeds of the Eternal Return collage series were planted.
Initially I had intended to keep the cards as bookmarks, having use for many as I embarked on a scholarly career. I saw the aesthetic value of a nostalgic reminder of a library system that was both iconic and now entirely obsolete. The cards with titles like American Labor Legislation Review, Water Supply Papers and Zoologische Jahrbücher conjure images of library clerks in reading glasses and knit cardigans bent over library desks stamping and recording circulation data before the integration of computer automation into the library process.
Grad school came and went, and I had used a small fraction of those due date cards as bookmarks as I devoured scholarly tomes on German philosophy. My interests moved from a desire to theoretically understand the creative process to actually engage in it, and the collection of due date cards felt like the perfect place to begin bringing my aesthetic influences together in a visual medium. Those library due date cards were not the only vintage paper collection I had from which to draw images and visual ideas; an old postage stamp collection handed down to me by both my maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother shared with the library cards an ephemeral connection to an almost obsolete past (posting physical letters in the mail) and a similar sepia tinted pallet of yellowing paper and engraved printing.
Postage stamps and due date cards also happen to have the same scale, and so I began to play with stamps positioned on the card. Magazine cut outs, game pieces, and old identification guides for flora and fauna provided a wealth of imagery from which to draw. Experimentation would eventually add the watercolor curve across the card beneath the imagery in to make what would become hundreds in a series that I titled Eternal Return, a series that continues to expand to this day.
This collage medium provided a space to combine my aesthetic influences which include, in addition to postage stamps and mid-century institutional imagery, the sepia tinted golden hour light and surreal juxtaposition of imagery of Giorgio de Chirico paintings, old maps and botanical illustrations, Tarot, flags and heraldry, Mexican Lotería game pieces and Joseph Cornell shadow boxes, the last of which with their paper ephemera collage is perhaps my works’ strongest precursor in the art canon and to whom I owe an artistic debt of gratitude that borders on theft.
The title Eternal Return alludes to the fact that the basic format of the series is infinitely iterable, there being an unimaginably large combination of possible images that can be arranged on a due date card. With each image, each typed book title on the cards, and even the name of each collage alluding to a whole host of concepts, persons, places, and objects, the whole human relationship to images and ideas can be potentially contained in the Eternal Return series taken to its imagined infinity.
Given the infinite possible imagery and concepts that can be combined within the Eternal Return series, the collages are capable of functioning like an unending post-modern tarot deck, a tarot deck that does not offer predictive power but that rather functions like a kind of Rorschach test drawing out ideological and conceptual associations and affective responses in the viewer, meaning that the attentive viewer who becomes aware of the associations that they make between the images and ideas becomes a virtual part of the series themselves.
To call Bitola (Битола), the second largest town in North Macedonia, a backwater is almost an understatement. An entire nation-state’s second largest town is hardly ever a backwater. Los Angeles is the United States’ second largest city. St. Petersburg is Russia’s. Montreal for Canada. Rio de Janeiro is Brazil’s. But Bitola only has 60,000 people, hardly a metropolis. North Macedonia (Македонија), a former Yugoslav republic, is itself small. Population the size of Vermont. Its main exports are agricultural. Long haired shepherds that look like they came out of a children’s picture bible can still be seen along mountain roads surrounded by their flocks, and most people still heat their homes with wood in the winter giving the entire country the smell of hardwood smoke for 5 months out of the year.
Bitola is beautiful though, and I was fortunate to have had the chance to live there. Ottoman architecture mixes with the plaster crumbling remains of the town’s 19th Century heyday when it acquired the nickname “City of Counsels,” referring to the numerous consulates of foreign governments once located in this border town at the edge of Europe. The old covered market—still in operation seven days a week—is a mixture of vaulted low domes and makeshift tarp walls and coverings surrounded by stalls where you can buy fresh meat and milk, nuts and eggs, local delicacies and the fruits of the earth. Mosque domes and minarets and an iconic brick clock-tower compete for skyline prominence with snow capped Mount Pelister (Пелистер), which overlooks the city to the West casting long afternoon shadows in the summer and sending the entire town into early night in the already short days of winter.
It was during those painfully short winter days in the shadow of Pelister’s peak where I sank into one of the deepest seasonal depressions I have ever known. My partner was studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the university there, a year long gig, and I was along for the ride. I was finishing up a grad program in philosophy, and since I was on a writing fellowship and only needed a laptop and a few books to work on my dissertation and no particular responsibilities beyond that, I had all the time in the world. Two people given to seasonal depression living together in a strange place where neither of us spoke the language or knew anyone.
Some of those short winter days, after her teaching duties at the university were done for the day, we would make our way to only supermarket in the city center, stock up on junk food, and watch from our 9th floor balcony as the sun made its way at only 3:00 in the afternoon behind the snow capped mountain, sinking us and our adopted temporary home into an early night. We would then binge on Milka and Ritter Sport chocolates. Eastern European Lays potato chip flavors like paprika or tzatziki. The healthiest thing I think we ate all winter was local homemade ajvar purchased from the farmers’ market, a smoky spread of roasted red peppers slow cooked in olive oil, on bagel chips. Wine was less than 2 euro a liter, so I was drunk as often and as easily as I’d like.
I am a wanderer and always have been, and here was my chance to explore a place with an unfamiliar and beautiful alphabet, a hospitable and vibrant food culture, a town full of architectural gems and post-industrial decay mixed with the crumbling remains of its belle epoch past ripe for exploration. A region with ancient Greek ruins, hills above to hike littered with abandoned churches and the telltale remains of the past to poke our noses into. And all we could do was gorge ourselves on trash food and wallow in melancholia. By March my time in North Macedonia and the Balkans was coming to an end, and I had virtually nothing to show for it except for disturbingly rapid weight gain and an increasingly sluggish metabolism.
Sitting just 15 km North of the Greek boarder in that landlocked space between Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria, and Greece, Bitola’s Spring broke in mid April. The days grew longer, and as the temperatures warmed, the smell of wood smoke from people heating their homes gave way to the balmy fresh smells of spring’s rains and budding foliage. Pelister no longer hid the sun in the mid-afternoon. With those lengthening days my lethargy gave way to wanderlust and my gluttony for sweets and fatty carbs gave way to a desire for greens and fresh fruits. Only a month and a half left of my time in the Balkans, and all of the sudden I had the urge to be on the move.
My partner and I rented a car, a little Kia with manual transmission that I didn’t know how to drive. We had the car rented for a month; we were done sitting around. We were going to see as much of North Macedonia and the rest of the Balkans as we could in the little time we had left. I learned how to drive a stick shift on the fly with a “fuck it” attitude to the frustrated honks from other motorists when I stalled. By the end of that month I could drive a stick shift with the best of them. We saw medieval monasteries in the lake town of Ohrid. Saw the post-industrial decay of Albania. Sarajevo’s war torn streets being rebuilt into the cultural hub it once was. The stone and terra cotta magnificence of Dubrovnik. Peerless local wine and homemade cheese in Montenegro. Canyons. Lakes. Fortresses. And from a high peak, the beauty of the Dalmatian coast.
The contrast between the depression of a Winter spent indoors with no vision or desire and the Spring of exploration and openness to the world could not be starker. The transformation it wrought in me was permanent and drastic. As I watched myself go from a troll who could barely blink in the sunlight to a sun eating worshiper of the world’s good things, I realized that I must always explore places and their capacities to affect people. Time is short, and I was fortunate to have any of it. Experience new tastes and smells and sights and visions. Must be open to things. Never sit still. Oh, of course depression has caught up with me many times since and it will again, but I have never, since then, lost sight of the deep and abiding wanderlust in my soul and the need to express out of the experiences that are my attempt to satisfy those desires.
To experience. To create. To encounter and produce the new. To move about the world on my own terms. To find ways to live that are different and my own, as much outside systems of domination, exploitation, and community killing artificial scarcity as possible. To think through these things and communicate them through art and writing. This is who I am; I have no choice.
Depression, seasonal and chronic, both of which force me out of routines and revelries periodically, is not something I’ve conquered. Nor is it something I merely live with. Rather, my time in Bitola, the winter’s depression and the coming to life convalescence that was as much spring’s doing, as it was an act of will, taught me something, if not about depression in general, then at least about my own mental health. None of us can choose a different neurobiology. We can medicate it and hack it and take it to therapy, but in general, the background conditions of how our affectivity relates to the changes in our environment is not something that is up to our conscious, volitional will. What I learned is that I am given to depression, to times when nothing happens, when I can barely breathe or drink a glass of wine or cook a decent dinner… barely. But those times come to an end, and when they do come to an end, when the morning is bright and inviting instead of making me want to put blankets over my head and wish for the end, these times are all we have, all I have. I’ve begun to think of depression as a gathering up of strength. A shepherding of internal resources for the times when I will be on the move, creating and exploring.
We are each given three score and ten—give or take—and for those of us who struggle with depression that time is carved up with bits of death between the periods of life. To create the self is to shape the bits of life into something beautiful, something that you can say yes to, something you can will to return eternally. And the bits of death in between, the depression caused by lack of sunlight or the exploitation of capital and breakdown of functional community or bad genes (or as is usual a combination of the three)? For a depressive like me, those times make the creative exploration possible. I would not be who I am without having to continually convalesce from the deepest night. Not something to regret, but something that motivates me further to write and explore and create and hopefully live differently and do a little bit to create a world and a life we can say yes to.
“What topic can you not shut up about?” The question was posed to me while I was filling out a profile for a dating site the other day. “Something you can’t shut up about”—when I hear this, I think of the things you obsess about that no one else around really cares about; when you bring it up there are groans because you see something there that they don’t see. Ask anyone; for me that topics is bicycles. Where I live—Cincinnati—where the steep and frequent hills do not make biking particularly inviting, and in fact, make it prohibitively difficult and intimidating for most, there are not nearly so many who have learned to come to depend on and find joy in riding bikes as in the other places I’ve lived. But for me biking has become a passion and a way of life, such that my dating site response is quite literally true; I really cannot shut up about them. But why bicycles?
I could go on and on about how biking is better for the environment and bicycle infrastructure is better for urban design. Or how much money you can save on gas, car payments, parking, insurance, and car maintenance (my total yearly transportation costs—including travel—are approximately $800). Or how in shape you’ll get both in terms of lower body muscle strength and cardiovascular endurance, increasing both fitness and life expectancy. I could talk about how cities become more livable and people happier when more people bike to work rather than drive for their commute. I could even talk about how much fun bikes are. Or about how good riding is for your mental health. These all are true, and there are many hundreds of articles to be found extolling these and the various other virtues and benefits of cycling. Most of these you could probably figure out for yourself anyway.
What can a body do? (Here I am channeling two philosophical heroes of mine—Spinoza and Deleuze). We don’t have even the slightest glimmer of an idea what a body can do. And before the invention of the bicycle, we had even less of an idea. The bicycle gives the already mobile human body an even greater range of motion, speed, and distance than it had before. Hiking 20 miles in a day is a good pace when covering long distances day after day, fully packed with gear for the journey. Running 26.2 miles in an afternoon pushes most bodies to or past their limit, but the ability to ride a bike with 60 pounds of gear 60 miles each day for weeks on end across entire continents is attainable for many fairly easily, and those miles are all powered by nothing but the human body.
Yes, cars can cover 60 miles in an hour as opposed to 60 miles in a day, and so for rapid transportation over long distances the car, train, plane, and motorcycle are all more convenient at making those distances small. But the speed of motorized transit is not a human speed. It is not a bodily speed. Yes, you can sightsee while riding in motorized transport; you can see the scenery blur past and make note of it. You can even stop along the route for photo ops at scenic overlooks, tourist destinations, and points of interest. You can be a tourist in a car or train, but you can’t explore. Only human speeds, speeds determined by what a body can do, allow for one to explore a space rather than only pass through and play the tourist. Bikes allow something different.
Consider speed. 15 miles per hour is a good but sustainable clip for an all-day bike ride. At that speed in favorable conditions you see a high degree of detail in your surroundings as you peddle past. Architecture. Animals and plants. Flowers and trees. Bridges, sunsets, rivers, and streams. The layout of cities and urban space. People watching from the saddle of a bike is exquisite. Stopping distance at that speed on a normal bike is about 9 feet. Something catches your attention out of the corner of your eye. Maybe it’s a baby turtle in your path or an arched bridge over your route. Maybe you notice a rose bush in full bloom or an abandoned brewery about to be torn down—its 100 year old brick facade more beautiful than any occupied building for miles—a little way off the street. On a bike, almost nothing along your route escapes your attention and there is always room to stop, observe, photograph, meditate, and explore from more angles.
Bikes take you along routes you would never experience by car. Cincinnati, for example, has hundreds of brick, flagstone, and cobblestone alleys interspersed through historic neighborhoods that are completely inaccessible by car, but by bike you can do 100 historic alleyways in a day. Or take the American rails to trails program which turns old, unused railroad beds that used to take freight across the country and turns them into dedicated bike paths that can take your human powered two wheels through some of the most fantastic scenery in the United States while covering the miles between cities. Eventually the rails to trails program will have created a route entirely of bike paths across the entire United States, highways built for human speeds and bodily freedom!
I hate using the word “freedom;” too loaded with mystification and too devoid of meaning in our present hegemonic ideological structure to be of much use for anything but an empty placeholder for liberatory values, but freedom is the first and last word that comes to mind as I wish to extol the virtue of the humble bicycle. Yes, one can bike for fitness or fashion or just for pleasure—and these are all fine reasons to ride a bike—but when you make a city or the countryside between cities a terrain to be explored by bike you learn to depend on your body, the very locus of an individual’s freedom, for the very act of moving from place to place. The bodily autonomy of every individual is sacred, and whatever expands the capacity of the body to do its own will is itself sacred as well. It is a shame that bicycles were invented in the modern era because for all their holy value in enhancing bodily autonomy there is no god of the bike (though cyclists do have their patron saint), and so I claim bikes and the freedom they give for the Olympian goddess Artemis, the virgin hunter who killed anyone who tried to rape her and is therefore one of the patrons of bodily autonomy in the ancient pantheon of the gods. Go forth with a bike between your legs and pedals beneath your feet! We do not even know yet what a body can do! All hail Artemis! All hail the patroness of bikes!
I am a strict “it’s all just matter and energy arranged in various ways” kind of materialist, not the vulgar reductionist kind that skips the “various ways” part of the equation, but completely unwilling to countenance the existence of a separate transcendent plane of being that influences, interacts with, directs, or gives meaning to our very material reality. Just a single flat plane of immanence in which all things are. A kind of Spinozistic monism shot through with modern physics, Nietzschean will to power, and Heidggerian “being-there.”
Let me explain. God does not exist. Nature is not caused or created by something outside of nature. There are no mystical causes or transcendent effects. It really is all just matter and energy arranged in various ways. Photons, protons, electrons, and all the other particles that makes up our best explanations for things. What physics attempts to understand is what is. Nevertheless…
Yes, demons, gods, fates, furies, muses, Bodhisattvas, and chimeras do exist, but their existences are determined by the flows of matter and energy between actually existing material individuals—the Sun, a human body, a baseball, the drop of dew on the wing of a hummingbird in the morning, which despite being “things” are nevertheless ephemeral, temporary, and always in flux. Heraclitus was right, you can never step in the same river twice; that’s true, and you can also only fuck the same lover once, embrace the same mother once, give alms to the same beggar once, and write a single word only once. All of these prosaic, everyday things and their seemingly mystical, mythical counterparts like Dionysus, the Great Pan, Yahweh, Ba’al, Kali, Quetzalcoatl, Minerva, and Loki are just ever-changing material flows that have a capacity to affect other flows and be affected by still other flows in turn. Flows of shit, flows of oil, flows of wine, sperm, sea water, menstrual blood and the blood from wounds, flows of mud, quicksand, chicken stock, fish guts, and clear plum brandy. Flows of gravity, flows of dark matter, flows of ionizing particles released by the sun, their speeds exceeding the solar escape velocity. Flows of language, pheromones, hormones, stomach acid, bile, intestinal bacteria, and neurotransmitters. Flows even of photons reflected off the surface of bodies and emanating from the destruction of matter rejecting of the dualism of particle and wave.
What physics studies is all there is, but all there is exceeds physics’ (or any human knowledge) ability to understand or categorize it. Just because Dionysus and Apollo and all the rest are not literal, eternal persons who walk and talk and have a will doesn’t mean they are not real; just don’t think they are magic, spiritual, mystical or transcendent. Just like any human construct, the names of the gods, angels, demons, faeries, sprites, djinn, demigods, heroes, souls, wizards, witches, warlocks, phoenixes, and dragons do not refer to the actual existence of things; they refer to capacities for matter and energy to affect and be affected. Once we realize, along with Spinoza, the prince of philosophers, that God and nature are one and the same, room is opened for a new materialist religion and spirituality. The gods are holy because they stand in for our awe, our wonder, our understanding, our overcomings, and our best (and worst) selves. They stand for the way that the whole of all nature or even little bits of nature exceed our ability to perceive, let alone comprehend. So we can stand in holy reverence for real things, the only things that exist. Pour out offerings for the earth, the sky, and our own list of struggles and overcomings. And such religions, rooted as they must be in what’s real, instead of giving us moral cover to deny reality, force us to engage with the world as it is, including its injustice and suffering, affirming what is—as it is—and attempting to transform it and give it meaning from within at the same time. We can do no other. And if all of this seems a bit too serious, remember that it’s all just matter and energy arranged in various ways.
Three books ruined me for living a comfortably boring middle-class life among the petty bourgeois. Before I tell you what those books are, I have to confide that it tickles my sappy romantic soul that books can still ruin people. How many people are ripe for being completely molded by a book? I cannot say. But we exist, and as long as there are a few of us, writing books and reading them will still be worthwhile.
The first book that ruined me was Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—which is itself three books, but no matter. The tale about Hobbits, Elves, Rings of Power, Dwarves, Dragons, and Wizards, told in an almost mythic voice, gives the reader a taste of what it would mean to live in a world where actions have moral weight, where identities matter, where who we are and what we do have ultimate meaning and significance, that they affect the fate of all good creatures in an enchantingly beautiful but fragile land. Good and evil exist, and there is satisfying and exciting adventure and peril in fighting for the good and resisting the evil, all for the cause of freedom and contented happiness of the small and the weak. Meaning. Weight. Death not in vain. But Tolkein’s books are a mere taste of weight because it’s not real; it is pure fantasy, and only the insane or those obsessed with cosplay would say otherwise. If a person is sufficiently taken with the life of meaningful adventure in a fantasy world, real life with its lack of apparent meaning seems dull and weightless, lackluster, and so as I child I would lose myself in play, pretending what I did was exciting and that it mattered. Playing with the idea of moral significance in Tolkien’s fantasy world was the perfect way to prime a child for what came next.
The next book that did me in was the Bible, the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. All of that make believe and play in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth that sustained my meaning-craving as a child failed to satisfying my developing reality principle as an adolescent. I needed something serious enough that it could withstand an adolescent coming to terms with the real world and the increasing pressure of the social world. With the Bible, that meaningful and exciting struggle between good and evil was both real and something I could be a part of. Though the meaning that the Bible finds in the world isn’t actually real—there are no gods, no afterlife, no redeeming drops of blood—I could pretend they were real, and I could surround myself with people who would tell me they were real. And oh, I believed in God and the afterlife and the redeeming drops of blood! I organized my life around them. I gave my life to them. Every action, every thought, every deed, every conversation mattered; the fate of the souls of the lost were always at stake.
If the Lord of the Rings showed me what it would be like if things mattered and the Bible showed me what it would be like if I believed it that they really did matter, then Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil taught me how to live meaningfully after learning that nothing could ever matter in the way Tolkien hinted at and the Bible promised. God is dead. God’s been long dead, at least from the perspective of a single human life, and most people have no idea what that even means. It’s not that god doesn’t exist; he never did, and besides that’s not the point. The point is that god no longer matters. We have ceased to understand cause and effect and the natural world in terms of a creator. We no longer believe sickness and health, good fortune and bad are the result of the providence of a beneficent yet inscrutable creator. We no longer believe that morality depends on the will and command of the Lord our God. At the same time nature has become disenchanted. No sense of destiny. No sense of mission. No sense of fate, character, good, or evil. But weight exists nonetheless. Weight depends on the will and health of the one for whom things are heavy. Mattering, significance, and moral weight are nothing more than the way each person relates to their world. And yet each of us are the kinds of beings who, seemingly inevitably, find ways to make things matter. Just because things don’t matter on their own, just because there is no god and no good and no evil out there in the universe, doesn’t mean that we can’t find things meaningful.
And here is where I return to that average, middle-class, contented life among the petty bourgeois. A house. A car. A husband or wife. 2.5 kids. A career. Health insurance. Security (or so we believe). A 401k. Since there is no meaning written into the nature of things, it’s perfectly possible to find value and meaning in these particular things; nothing’s stopping you. I just can’t do it. I was primed by these three books — Tolkien, the Bible, Nietzsche —for a more mythic, heroic, and morally sublime sort of meaning. What ever happened to the liberty and happiness of all free creatures, even the weakest? Whatever happened to the fate of souls (including the fate of one’s own soul!)? There may be no ring of power to destroy or Great Eye to defeat. Souls may not be fated for all eternity. There may not be any redeeming drops of blood. But there are still compelling enemies to fight and still satisfying battles to be won. Things to be overcome. Works of great beauty and sublimity to create. And if enough of us can see it, there are still free peoples whose liberty and comfort can be secured from their oppressors. One only has to have the vision for it. And the courage.
I grew up in a Midwestern river town. There are dozens of these towns scattered throughout the middle of the country. Until modernity allowed us to colonized deserts and mountains, virtually all dense human settlements were founded by rivers, lakes, or seas, water being our only way to live in an otherwise inhospitable world. With the 21st Century’s domination of nature, our cities no longer depend on the bodies of water they are built beside. Most of our transportation is now over land or by air, and we can dig deeply for potable water or send it in via pipeline from miles away, but our cities and their locations still bear witness to our ancient need to be near the water. And so in the Midwest where there are no seas and the prairies stretch on for miles, our towns are built in or near those valleys that break up the monotony of the continent and once provided the easiest means to move heavy goods and raw materials in and out. The mighty Ohio and Mississippi and Missouri. The Wabash and the Miami. The Tippecanoe. The Calumet. Most of their names reminding us that none of this land is ours.
The river town I grew up in is also a university town; the university is the culturally dominant force in the region, changing an otherwise farm based economy into a diverse one drawing on what amounts to a second city’s worth of professionals, scholars, and students in the university community. But it is a town that remains distinctively Midwestern and distinctively Indiana. Because I could get a world-class education without leaving, I stayed—mostly out of necessity—until I had my degree and a way out via a funded grad program in Chicago (a lake town, not a river town, I should note). By that time, I was so ready to get out. For all the university’s civilizing influence, my hometown still felt like a backwater, a place I couldn’t wait to escape.
Leaving the small university farm town for the cosmopolitan City of Big Shoulders was a life transformative experience, molding me into the person that resembles the one I am now. But the intervening years between my coming of age in Chicago and now the writer of this blog were difficult and transformative in their own way. Rejection of profession. Divorce. Alienation. Desperation. Depression. Panic attacks that sent me to the hospital and led me to think about suicide in a serious way for the first time in my life. All stories for another time. What is important here is that in my desperate crisis where sanity and spirit seemed to have left me, I returned home to the river town of my youth.
Returning home felt like defeat. Once I had begun to excel in academics as an undergraduate, I knew I had my way out of there, and nothing would stop me from taking it. I took the first way out that presented itself, grad school in Chicago, but here I was back where I started, divorced, in a mountain of student debt, directionless, with that deep pit of dread intimating that my life was over.
No job. The fumes of a savings account buoyed by early withdrawals from my meager 401k. I had all the time in the world and very little money to spend (and nowhere really to spend it, even if I did). Almost all the friends from my hometown had moved on to other places as I had, and so besides my immediate family I was virtually alone in a place that was both familiar and yet felt like a distant memory. When in good mental health, alone with free time to burn for me means writing, art, creative energy, but in my state of depressive anxiety and existential dread, alone with free time can lead to desperation, more anxiety. Spiraling.
When I returned to my hometown, I also returned to my parents’ home. They live on the Eastern edge of the prairie that eventually gives way to the Great Plains and eventually the Rockies to the West, about eight miles from the center of town and the river valley in which it sits. During this period I would wake up every morning, pack up my things—a laptop, some books and a notebook, some weed, a camera—hop on a bike, and set off across the flat farmland until I found the bike paths and streets that would channel my two wheels down to the river. There by the river, paved trails run along both banks through parks, creek valleys, wooded banks, and an old abandoned golf course. I would smoke weed, get coffee and read at the cafe, and bike up and down those riverside paths, where the only people I encountered were joggers and the homeless, the latter setting up small camps in the woods on the banks of the river, camps that lasted as long as the cops would leave them be. Some days I would put a bottle of wine in my water bottle, pack a lunch, and sit under a tree in the old golf course overgrown with weeds, and watch the clouds, listen to the birds. Think. Be.
This river I grew up by and returned to is the Wabash, a tributary of the Ohio, which is then a tributary of the mighty Mississippi, which in turn flows into the Gulf of Mexico. So the Wabash is three degrees removed from the sea, but nevertheless songs have been written about it. The Indiana state song is “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away.” And Johnny Cash has a little known song in his oeuvre “If it wasn’t for the Wabash River” about an encounter he had with a local in my hometown of Lafayette, Indiana while on tour. Give the song and the story that goes with it a listen.
The story is about Johnny Cash pulling over his tour van in Lafayette and meeting a man who is fishing down by the river. This man’s wife left him for California, and he has finally given up trying to get her back. In his desperate depression he turns to fishing for catfish on the banks of the Wabash as a distracting solace, more about solitude and stillness than actual fishing. In Cash’s words, fishing by the river day and night, day after day, got him to the point where he just about has his mind back together. The chorus of the song goes “If it wasn’t for the Wabash River, I’d be out of my mind.” Substitute a bike for a fishing pole, and the song could be, just about word for word, about me and my time by the river.
All that time biking up and down the Wabash. Sitting under shade trees. Smoking weed and listening to the flow of the current and the sounds of song birds and eagles that fly up and down the valley. Alternating between pushing my body hard and leisurely riding those solitary paths under the trees that shade the banks was like a balm and a poultice on the boil of my throbbing dread and anxiety. Slowly the poisons came to the surface. Slowly the pressure was relieved. Some days I’d cry as the wind dried sweat and tears off my streaked face leaving salt stains on my shirt and messenger bag. Other days I’d laugh like a madman at the absurdity of it all. A summer of doing that, and though nothing was resolved about how I’d make a living or how to get over lost loves, I was well. My body was forming itself into something new, so too my mind and spirit. And in my memory’s eye I can still see myself pushing the pedals as the current of the Wabash flows beside me. And I can sing, right along with Johnny Cash, “If it wasn’t for the Wabash River, I’d be out of my mind.”
Dionysus, the god of wine, dance, intoxicated and feral wisdom, and Apollo, clear sited, wise, all-seeing, rational god of the sun. Living as though I am a devotee of these gods, their initiate, and their protege, this blog is a documentation of living under their signs. Part travel blog—I’ll record journeys by bike across continents in attempts to find temporary zones of autonomy and struggle to help sustain them. Part art blog—I’ll show you the images created while inspired by this tiny pantheon. Part writer’s blog—you’ll get to read excerpts of larger works and essays on life, philosophy, politics, food and drink, and exploration by bike and train.
A bit about me (and therefore a bit about this blog): I’m a philosopher by training who left academia a few years ago to find less restrictive modes of expression and more possibilities for creating art and a new world. Now I’m a wanderer who has traded scholarly philosophy for sophistry, poetry, fiction, and making the self a work of art. Founder of the currently embryonic Dionysian Socialist Collective, a society of artists and radicals who recognize that we live in a broken culture that has been tainted by capitalism’s scourge and bourgeois values and so attempts to live differently finding ways of living that are liberating and creatively expansive.
After quitting a job as a philosophy professor I left a rat race of a city for a town where I can live off bartending, leaving time for writing, art, bike rides, and exploration of the hidden and neglected spaces that still remain outside our social order of domination and control in and around my newly adopted city, Cincinnati where I’ll live until I complete my first novel and then it’s the road again and more wandering.
This blog represents attempts to live differently. Valuing the body and art more than career and wealth. Disdaining success for the open road and the shedding off of inhibition. Thinking community on different terms. Same with living arrangements, romantic partnerships, making a living, even movement from place to place. I’m a novice at all of these things—still learning, and I would welcome my readers’ input and feedback along the way. So while this blog is a place to publish various forms of creative expression, it is more about that quest to live better, which from where I sit means to live apart and even in opposition as much as possible.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far, and I have yet to fully live up to my best wisdom. Quit your job. Sell your car. And your house. Make art. Join the water protectors and join antifa (remembering that we are killing the planet and putting indigenous immigrants into concentration camps). Shout “I would prefer not to” at the empty and stultifying life propped up by Capital and its effects. Stop buying stuff except what you need to live with joy. Put wrenches in the works of Capital, remembering that if something is not accessible to the humble worker, the poor, the homeless, and the outcast, it is not revolutionary or liberating. These are among the themes explored here.
What will follow will be an eclectic mix of philosophy and art. Memoir and fiction. Essay and photography. Documenting places explored, the uncertain and variegated terrain of the unconscious and its desires and the ideas those encounters generate. Expect posts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Once I hit the road again, I’ll post more… or less… We will see.