I went to college on a stroke of luck. A little liberal arts school down South was searching for more freshmen, so I began an application a month before graduation. I never finished, but nevertheless, I received an acceptance email three months later. The school was tiny and unassuming from the outset. Once you drive through a tunnel of bending trees, you’re greeted by scant flatlands with trees in clusters and short brick buildings strewn about. It isn’t until you go on foot that the campus’s beauty becomes apparent.
It sat on a pointed stretch of terra firma jutting into the river. Water and land were placed in syzygy as ponds popped up around the campus, and the tree clusters grew closer together the farther you walked, leaving lush pockets of greenery to line the margins. My dorm was, essentially, a big white cabin facing a graveyard, all on a hill overlooking the lagoon. It felt like camp; it felt like vacation; in the early mornings, it felt like the remnants of Zora’s blue ether, as if the scene was cobbled together each morning and put away at night by the doting fingers of a child at play.
In the mornings, I’d wake up at dawn and walk toward the edge of the cemetery to watch the sun rise, then head off for a breakfast with coffee and a book. Back then, I wielded time. An hour became three days in a Murakami novel, a day stretched to months through Flowers for Algernon. Time seemed compartmentalized, sliced apart between pages. Hours could be picked up and tucked away in some other plane, untouched until I went wandering in my own mind and stumbled upon old memories.
Over time I realized I knew nothing when at one point I knew everything. I knew what was to come even though I never believed in fate; the future was always changing, but it was easy to keep pace at that age, when you could catch what lay ahead with a butterfly net, trap it in a jar and use the cosmos as a nightlight before getting winded. These days I find myself a victim of time. It cuts into me like winter winds pushing against the skin as you’re trying to move forward. These days youth is an apparatus for competition, which is often only tangentially related to brilliance. Wunder-culture depends on the unholy algorithm of youth, talent, and backstage privilege. Similarly, beauty culture tries to administer a Hegelian deadlock on time through two cosmetic avenues: transient or permanent. Typically, we associate beauty with youth because beauty is feminized. Beauty in men is tertiary; in women, primary, defined by smooth skin and taut breasts. However, for many, like the 15-year-old alabaster YouTubers with lavender hair and elvish features, beauty is older and distinguished because only then will it free you. It’s this freedom in youth that propels us to administer Hegelian deadlocks on time. Master time, master the universe, untether yourself from coffel.
I measured time in steps, persisting not toward a horizon but despite it, culling the raw materials before me to try to fend off tomorrow’s zephyrs. Now I find that the only liberation from time is death.
The gears pushing me forward gathered rust as they fell to time’s devices. In the fall of my junior year, I made Dean’s List; immediately I began to drift away. It was all too easy, predictable. Magazines offered more stimulation than a lecture. The urge to escape theory brought me asunder, as the old story goes. I became an unyielding concentration of energy seeking an outlet. Freddie Gray had just been killed, Baltimore bubbled over into the streets. I took up journalism as a raison d’être (or rather, reason for being there) when I didn’t need one. Unrest is an apologia on its own, an apologia for the outlaws.
It all culminated in one bright spring Tuesday this past March, when I walked into Intro to Creative Writing as if it were jury duty. Once I sat down and class began I was crushed by the overwhelming desire to leave. Right now. So, I did. By the end of the day I’d withdrawn from the course.
My disillusionment was slow and aimless because, to me, the future had become an experience. But a month later, when Trump began beating his chest at North Korea, I found that it might not be.
Ambiguity is a cruel imperative. Here I am, 21, praying for the wisdom Sontag acquired at 16: “…And what is it to be young in years and suddenly wakened to the anguish, the urgency of life?” Extracted from discord the way tears are when you pull teeth: expected but unwelcome nonetheless.
April 7th, 2017, Donald Trump authorized a missile strike on Syria from the confines of Mar-a-Lago, akin, in style, to a Florida retiree, mid-stroke, vouching over the phone for his favorite granddaughter after she’d broken a vase. This strategy served as a lot of things: a testament to Trump’s insecurities, a sideways affront to Kim Jong-Un, another step past the threshold of parody. I was at work when it happened. Every day I found a few free hours in which there was nothing to do because I was, truthfully, unqualified for the job. I’d scroll through essays tucked into my Pocket or, back then, click back to CNN every ten minutes to stoke my worst fears. That day, I received an alert (since turned off) about the missile strike, returned to CNN’s bold red banner to set the mood, and promptly searched for an essay laying out the Syrian crisis once and for all.
It didn’t help that Trump spent the following weak measuring dicks with Kim Jong-Un in some sort of manic intoxication that apparently lingers after you bomb a country. These days “North Korea” has become a nom de plume for “nuclear war,” a concept I always considered in a distant future that would probably never come. It was then that I graduated to paranoia; humanity’s always been on the brink of annihilation, I thought. As Americans, we assume this country is a static invention, but it’s more an extended study in forced provincialism. It’s another empire constantly teetering, flirting with falling until it leans too far right and collapses, leaving the rest of the world to clean the debris. To live is to wade through constant endings; the only constancy there is resides in their circumstances. Yesterday’s gone, but the sun always rises. And though time slows and speeds with the tempo of a heartbeat, it will persist long after the pitter-patter of organic matter wrinkles into nothing.
In our culture remains a twisted solace in spectacle. We want our end to be everyone’s end, the end. “If I go down, I’m taking you with me.” American empire depends on audacity and bigness. The apocalypse will be an event—it must be—and what better way to ensure no one outlasts us than nuclear war? But life isn’t spectacular. We don’t, can’t, surveil all human life, despite our best efforts. Someone somewhere gets tired of watching you sleep. Most endings pass so quietly we don’t realize they’ve come until long after. The spectacular is a mosaic of little impossibilities: foley artists tap sliced coconut shells on cement to simulate horse trotter; the young folks throw copper tints or lens flares over Instagram photos for some filmic antiquity; that conversation didn’t go quite the way you said. These are man-made spectacles, however. Sometimes sunlight refracts through raindrops twice to rip two strips from heaven.
Atomic annihilation is a man-made spectacle, that which we’re forced to convey without experience. It’s another attempt to corral time. Once the right despot feels suicidal, he’ll push The Button under the misconception that he’s run out of time when he’s overreached space. (One cannot extend their power beyond the borders drawn by hubris.)
Despite all this, I can’t find peace in time when, ultimately, I have to end. It isn’t as though mastering time made me see myself as immortal. I always knew death was somewhere off in the distance; the issue is that I’d never seen it. It was just below the horizon, not yet peering up above the hill because I hadn’t walked far enough to see its proximity. I see it, now. Despite the steady parade of existential threats, I see it only now. As a friend once said when a thunderstorm rolled past: “It’s storming and I’m scared. I never get scared of storms, but I am now.”