BATTER MY HEART
Ghost places and ghost memories
How does this feel?
(get up, sit down, shift around, grab my matcha, sip my matcha, pull the cell phone out of my pocket (too bulky), put it on the bed, pick up the rubber coaster (that I have inexplicably put on my bed), put it next to the matcha mug but not under it (which would take two hands), consider flinging the coaster like a frisbee into the other room (but no, no, that’s not really the best idea). shift around, again)
I’ve written so many words, in so many text files and online docs and publications, and I have so many more to write ahead.
And ugh, they seem awful, a godawful mess of words. I reach out and my hand gets stuck in them, the thicket of them, and they close in around my hand, suffocating it.
My phone rings.
“Hello!” Robot. I should hang up immediately.
She’s so cheerful though. I haven’t heard anyone’s voice all day.
“Welcome to your new HealthFirst Plan! You should be receiving your welcome packet in the mail shortly. If you have any questions call us at One Eight Five Five Seven Seven Nine One Zero Three Six. Thank for joining HealthFii” *click*.
Why did I write this down? Why do I write anything down?
Why do I tell you about my godawful mess of words, instead of getting on with these words, doing what a good writer does and telling an actual story?
Look at something with me, here:
These questions (“why did I”, “why do I”) have boxed me in, leave me surrounded by the questions. I don’t know the path to what to write next, I don’t know how to get past these questions. This feeling: I’m in a room, and the room has no color—white walls—and I’m in a corner, not even just a corner but a corner that has a nook in it of more and smaller corners, a nook that’s perfectly me-shaped, and I squeeze into the little coffin tucked away this corner. Stuck, immobile, unmoving, cowering.
The questions lumber and flub themselves about the space of this larger room, huge amorphous entities simultaneously blob-solid and pervasive air. They are threats in poisonous purple and neon orange—their movements seem simultaneously natural and alien.
That’s this feeling, that’s what the feeling feels like.
What could I instead feel like?
I could be running down a silent, empty dirt road to who knows where, in the twilit darkening.
I could be floating in the air above some past memory, like ghostly Ebenezer and his spirit guide.
But my felt experience of my writing, here and now, is this coffin-y nook of mine, and these fucking blobby things.
We can feel a million different ways (can we? a million?) and this is just one of those ways. I commit it to writing but I will change and the feeling will change, perhaps only moments from now. The blobs will settle into quiescence, sink into the plain tiles of the linoleum-white floor, disappear into the abyss of my attention. Perhaps they will reemerge elsewhere, at some future moment, but maybe not. We change, and we change, and we change, and all that within the span of a minute or so.
Perhaps, like the quantum subatomic realm, my very observation of this feeling changes it, modifies it. Can I really talk of feelings that consist of aggressive blobs and coffin-like corners? “Backed into a corner” might already be a metaphor we pervasively use, sure, but *waves a dismissive hand* metaphors! Mere metaphors! You’re just making shit up, writer! You’re just writing, you writer! None of this is literal. None of this objective.
But, friends, what if language is everything, like the better philosophers have begun to say? (oh you’re so loose, JG, so carelessly loose.)
“It’s not literal.” Listen to the irony of this etymology: “literal”, “literary”. An etymology that has grown into oxymoron.
What if language is written in us so deeply that it is, precisely, literally, how we feel, not simply how we interpret? Precisely how we are, not simply how we represent ourselves? That we literally are as literature to ourselves?
(Come join me in my coffin-like nook, my pretty!)
So, what, am I here to chart the written DNA of feeling itself? Of the language that writes our feelings, our perceptions of the world?
No. Who knows. I don’t know. I’ve only just started writing this. Give me a goddamn break.
[Pinched-down brow A cutting ‘V’ from the vertex point between the eyes, curving and bowing out along the outlines of the eye-sockets beneath the eyebrows A ‘V’ like the flying wings of a line-drawn bird: my irritation, when I spit at you, “give me a goddamn break,” straw man though you may be.]
There’s one thing I passed over, in describing my coffin-like crevasse surrounded by malevolent putties in the white-walled room.
This room is also a classroom from my elementary school.
I remember this classroom, and I perhaps remember this classroom often. Which isn’t to say that I deliberately think about it, that I consciously recall it to myself, “ah yes, the classroom, yes yes.”
No, rather, it haunts me—it’s a specter that’s also a place. It spooks about below the waterline of my consciousness, but just below, a strange-faced, strange-toothed, strange-proportioned sea monster.
This isn’t the only such specter concocted by my memory. I could be walking down the street, and see a chunk of fence, and a ripped scrap of some formerly intact advert, and under my waterline of consciousness will spook about the impression of an alleyway. Why an alleyway? Why think of an alleyway of all places? Perhaps it’s not even one I’ve visited, but only my archetypal representation of an alleyway, derived, for example, from movies that have alleyways, and dramatic scenes that take place in them.
This is just one example. My mind often goes to certain rooms, corners, vistas, or positions in my old high school, or roads in my hometown, or the playground fields of my childhood, or any myriad number of other places besides.
It’s like a “ghost place”, or a “ghost memory”. Do you know what that feels like? I’m asking with authentic wonder and curiosity, because I haven’t heard someone ask this question of me. Sure, we describe things in memory, the contents of memory—an exhilarating hike, the moment you met your significant other—but what I am asking you to see is a memory qua memory, how memory itself feels. I don’t want to simply describe another alleyway for you, because what this alleyway looks like isn’t even what matters; what matters is the unique way in which it haunts me, the way it returns and returns. I talk of ghost places and ghost memories, and they fascinate me in their own right, but I also am fascinated to know if they are in you, and in you, and in you.
I think I am here writing, today, and maybe ever hereafter, because all I want to know is whether it’s the same for you, y’all, or at least similar, inside. Inside there.
You know, what you call “here”, or “me”, or “I”.
I want to believe, however Quixotically, that by learning this about you I can break outside of my own “here”, my own “I”, to whatever degree, however momentarily.
(ek-static: “standing outside of oneself”)
I Google what “ghost place” is in German, because German is a better language to make words up in. I get back Geisterort, a portmanteau of “Geist” (ghost) and “der Ort” (place, position, locus). And I like it, but what am I going to do with it? I must already be trying your patience, readers. I doubt I can get away with mashing up random German words to explain myself.
And so let’s return to my elementary school classroom.
You know the first thing I think of when I think of this classroom? Printers.
Specifically, those old printers that we had when I was a kid in elementary school. There was this glorious, delightful window of time between when personal computers first became a thing and when they grew into demiurges that shape our entire existence. We did things like play Oregon Trail on those childhood-coeval computers, and we had clunky word processors like WordPerfect and would browse the internet on Netscape Navigator and the most spicy thing you might get up to is finding a free internet provider that would show you ads so you didn’t have to pay for dialup.
And the printers were especially delightful. They printed out sheets of your normal 8.5”x11” size, or roughly the same, but they didn’t have the same feeding mechanisms printers now have. So instead of feeding through a normal 8.5”x11” sheet of paper, the sheets of paper had two tearable strips on either side of them with little square holes, that the printers would use to pull the paper through by means of these rotating wheels with spokes on the outside instead of the inside. And when the page was done printing, you had to tear off the tearable strips from the paper, and of course you’d end up having little triangular tags of paper that wouldn’t neatly rip off, and you’d either have to tweeze those tags off with your pinching fingers or you’d just hand the papers in as is, who cares, I’m like 9 or 10, no big deal. And sometimes when you were done ripping the tabs off and you had these strips of long square-hole-filled paper, you’d fold them up, fold the holes on top of the other holes, try to fold all the holes on top of all the other holes and fail because the bends of the paper get too thick eventually. You learn about the properties of paper, and folding, and holes, or else you’re just a 9 year old kid and you’re bored and random shit like this entertains you and life doesn’t have as many worries and complications and problems yet.
I think of this, of these printers, in this phantom room that I am sequestered in, hiding in the corner of.
And of course, I think of the computers, the boxy things, looking like silly mute little beige TVs, because TVs are always black, and old-school computers are always beige. And both of them looked old-timey and silly back then. They were housed in fat, squat boxes and their screens weren’t flat, they bowed out, convex and soft and funny, something you couldn’t take all that seriously, not like the flat abyssal black of all screens today, screens you must take deadly seriously.
The computer lab of this elementary school arrayed the computers in a room-sized square, with each wall having a long table with computer in front of chair next to computer in front of chair next to computer in front of chair, and then a rolly-spoke-wheel-tearable-paper printer in the middle of each section of these adjacent computers and chairs.
And in my ghost memory it’s completely empty, otherwise, this room.
No teachers, no other students.
No me, even, except as a spectatorial presence (a spect-ator within a spect-er of a memory, a ghost within a ghost).
My ghost memory is not of childhood me at a desk, doing a thing, writing a thing, ripping tabbed paper sides off of printer sheets, folding the tabbed paper back and forth repeatedly to ensure a clear tear-off. Nor socializing and being socialized with, nor being questioned by a teacher and answering.
This room is just a room, that’s mostly empty, and if this memory room is ghostly to begin with, it contains an even ghostlier set of computers and printers, barely present, translucent, opacity = 20% or 30%. They occupy the room, but barely, as if they aren’t actually occupying it at all, as if I could walk straight through them and feel little more than a breeze.
This room is just an emptyish room, and if I followed the antechamber of this room (for there was this little chunk of this larger room that you’d start in, a small rectangle of space about a golden ratio-step smaller than the larger rectangle of space, and for lack of a better word I’ll call this the “antechamber”) if I followed the antechamber of this room not into the larger room but rather back into the hallway of the elementary school, I could traverse my way to other ghost places, other ghost memories.
And all of them would be just as empty and unpeopled as this first room was, even if I hopped through all of them all the way back to my childhood home. Down all the still vivid school hallways and rooms I spent days and months of my student life in, down out of all the doors that led to all the outdoor recess spaces, to the lines that would queue for the school buses, to the gathering spots that would aggregate us waiting kids as we waited for the school buses to come, or provide roomier space for us in ones and twos and threes if it was after some after-school activity and we were waiting for our parents to pick us up, sidling up to the curb in their sedans and hatchbacks and SUVs in black and white and gray and red and blue (no yellow, those chromatic moments were reserved for the Jurassic parade of buses, so massively larger than us tiny-bodied students, semi-benevolent monsters that daily ate us and spit us out no more than an hour later, Jonahs each of us and all).
Down, too, through the narrow copse of trees planted on the median that separates the narrow entry part of the parking lot roundabout from the wider area where the cars would park on one side, the side next to the median, and where they would queue on the other, the side next to the school. Up, too, the hill that leads out away from this school and towards home, up the hill that leads away from this elementary school, grades 3 to 5, and past the younger kids’ school, the grammar school, grades K to 2, where my ghost memories are perhaps more limited—to two or three halls, two or three classrooms, to the cafeteria and the library—but hardly less clear and complete and whole for it, and with no hierarchy or distinction that would mark it as belonging to my “younger years” that I don’t, at least, insert through my own post hoc conscious identification.
And then through the town, my childhood town, from street to street to park to street to street to very long street to home.
And the burdens of these memories, these ghostly spaces, ballooning out as I allow myself to wander through them deliberately, with an effort at capturing and describing them—they start to make me ill, unsettled, overwhelmed.
I feel a nausea welling in my throat, a sinuous shock of nerves that crawl from that knot up through the top of my head, thick vines that encage my face and tell me, perhaps, that it’s now time to stop. To stop writing. I have to return to where I am. I need (have needed), for one, to use the goddamn bathroom, and it’s already almost 8 p.m. and I haven’t started dinner.
I feel strange as I get up, a heavy vapor in my brain, in the front of my brain.
Not unhappy, not anything, just… Where was I?
Where am I?
Batter my heart.
Batter my heart.
Where am I?
An opera at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. 2008, maybe.
It was my first adult memory of the city I would later live in for ten years. I was an undergraduate in Berkeley at the time. I probably went to this opera with my parents, possibly friends, but I remember neither.
We had the nose-bleedingest of seats, but I remember the performance as if I was pressed right up against the stage. I loved it. A strange opera, entirely in English—aren’t they supposed to be in Italian or French or German? Extremely dissonant, full of pulsating drama.
Before I started writing anything else, today, I heard the stricken voice of Gerald Finley from this opera by John Adams and Peter Sellars, Doctor Atomic:
“Batter my heart, three person’d God.”
“Batter my heart, three person’d God.”
You don’t know this opera, probably.
But you can listen to what I hear right now, in my mind, at least.
I would like it if you did. It’s only 1 minute and 58 seconds. I can wait. Here.
That character is J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” right on the verge of the world’s first atomic explosion in Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, the culmination of America’s Manhattan Project.
The real J. Robert Oppenheimer later said, of this moment, “We knew the world would not be the same”:
I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.
The real J. Robert Oppenheimer named this 1945 nuclear test “Trinity,” a name which he attributed to John Donne’s sonnets, including this one taken for the Doctor Atomic libretto:
Batter my heart, three person'd God;
That I may rise, and stand,
o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break,
blow, break, blow, break,
blow burn and make me new.
Oppenheimer’s memory: John Donne. The Holy Trinity. Three person’d God. Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu. Creation, destruction, preservation.
My memory: a representation of Oppenheimer, John Adam’s representation of Oppenheimer, or “Oppie,” as the libretto affectionately calls him.
My memory: my fascination with this moment, the birth of a technology representing mankind’s ability to destroy itself completely.
My memory: my identification with Oppie, how moved I was by Oppie’s tortured ambivalence about his role in this birth.
Oppenheimer’s memory: The Manhattan Project. Alamogordo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki.
Oppenheimer’s memory: The Bomb.
What is there in my memory, for you? What is there in any memory that the holder of the memory (the “I”), can convey to another (a “you”)?
It isn’t your memory, this memory of an operatic Oppenheimer. You can’t be touched by it as I was touched by it. You won’t have it come back to you at random moments of a day, revenant and beautifully haunting.
But can you get close? Can you get any of it? Greater than nothing? Can you get something filtered through me, through my impression of it? My representation of it?
Can I give you the full corpus of thoughts the memory has provoked, or its infinite mesh of visual images and connotations and associations and inflections, or the inexhaustible little imponderables that continue to plug the memory into my broader life and identity?
No, of course not.
But can I give you anything at all?
My heart swells. Uncomfortably. It’s hard to take.
I don’t know why.
I feel filled with it, and it feels like it has nowhere to go.
Except, maybe, here, into what I’m writing, into what I intend to write. But that relief is so much slower than the relief I want right now.
Relief. Relief from.
Break, blow burn and make me new.
An unprecedented explosion.
Break, blow burn and make the world new.
An eternity stretching ahead of us.
Break, blow burn and make us new.
And yet, here we are, stuck between the old world and the new.
Are we going to be ok?
That’s all I want to know. That’s all I really want to know.
Am I going to be ok?