Now school is out, which always happens this time of year. Those who graduated this May did so 20 years after it happened to me. It rained all day before my graduation party, and Casablanca was on television around 50 years after it first appeared in the theater. I didn’t watch it all. I didn’t hear Bogart say, ‘Here’s looking at you, kid.’ Baccalaureate was at the Methodist Church, graduation on the Corydon Bandstand. In photographs from that day, it looks like my family is trying to squeeze something out of me, standing way to close in the photograph. My brother looks like he’s posing for a Kohl’s ad, all muscles and confidence. I just look uncomfortable.
Each year took longer than it does now. Perhaps this was legislated by Congress, like daylight savings. Plans for the future were vague. I recall driving our old Farmall H into the drive at my grandfather’s windmill 80, after the summer of 1994 had already sunk in. Rick Kunzie drove by on the gravel road and told me how lucky I was to be free. 'Free of what?' I thought.
I didn’t have any plans, but I wanted to be a writer. It was good I did not understand just how difficult that aspiration could become. I think that’s why God invented delusions—to keep us safe from reality until the worlds revolve to the point of clicking into place. We’d give up if we weren’t a little irrational. As Emily Dickinson said, ‘Much madness is divinest sense.’ Dickinson, like another madman, Van Gogh, worked in obscurity until being discovered after burial. My friend and former coworker Jason Gregg once asked me if I would rather be mediocre while alive, or famous after I died. I told him I’d prefer the latter. He seemed incredulous, wondering why I would want to be considered great if I did not know it. It seemed like a logical summation on his part. I now see it as nihilism, and not the healthy kind.
In kindergarten, Mrs. Johnson had a pile of cardboard bricks in the back of the classroom, and on the rare occasion I got to build with them, I felt blessed. On the last day of school, we got bussed out to Mrs. Johnson’s farm. I don’t remember where she lived, just somewhere in the country. I still drive by houses now that remind me of that day—is it correct that I recall a sugar maple with a tire swing?—and wonder whether that’s where she lived. If my wife is with me, she gets to hear the story, again, about visiting Mrs. Johnson’s house.
When I rode Nancy Hamar’s bus, on the last day of school, she took us to the Dairy Queen on the east side of the square. It sat between what is now Betty’s Café and Middlebrook’s Service Station. My parent’s made sure to send change so that I could buy ice cream.
For all of the buildup to summer, I mostly recall boredom the first day off, and when I got older, hard work and the humid dust that stuck to the back of your neck, and tractor air conditioners that never worked. Whenever my dad got them fixed, they’d run for a few weeks, cover me in dripping water, and then stop working again.
I carried over that work ethic to writing—eventually. Even though I was a writer, I tried my best to avoid schoolwork in elementary. Especially time-consuming essays. It was too tempting to escape outdoors in the fall instead of staying inside and writing about suggested subjects like the Effigy Mounds of northeastern Iowa.
Mrs. Levis was the teacher who suggested the Effigy Mounds, since I was interested in archeology. If I had done my paper on these burial shapes, I could have saved myself some heartache. I also would’ve known better what to look for on my many trips to Pike’s Peak State Park with my brother.
In college and beyond, I started looking at my work like a hayfield, where you’ve just got to keep going down each row, row-by-row, if you want to get to the finished product. After college, becoming a serious author, I discovered even that was not enough, that I had to dig deeper. The work wasn’t about physical rows, but about dimension after dimension, and the only way to access that level was to disregard logic. Another use for delusion. But by then I understood it was not delusion, but seeing things for the first time. If people started calling you crazy, you were probably on the right track.
In The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, Samuel Johnson, through the voice of one of his characters, says that the pyramids were built as monuments to boredom. In other words, boredom led the kings to live out their delusions, and for the Egyptians to honor these delusions with useless toil. And so the pyramids rose.
In some Eastern philosophies, work is seen as a sacrament, a meditation. It doesn’t matter if it is writing or farming, every action is sanctified if done in right thought, with an attitude of reverence. Worries about time must be disregarded, and in this way we must become more childlike, less in tune with the clock on the wall. It’s like the Effigy Mounds. They were built with a form of logic, with equinoxes in mind, but that was only the means to the end. The end was a child sitting—hundreds of years later, the builders long dead—on bear mound above the Mississippi River, watching barges float away a thousand feet below.