I have begun with thyme again. I did not start it from seed this time; it seemed unpropitious. I got some cuttings from my greengrocer and started them in some sort of growing medium, I’m not sure what, mica chips or something. Anyway, here they are. Come spring I shall plant them in the old garden, well-tended by my Aunt Breath until she died, in the hope that not only will this be the beginnings of thyme but the reimagining of the garden as well. Next year I shall add some roses and maybe mint. I like a good mint tea.
Now it is reasonable to ask, what do I think I’m doing here, planting anything in my dear aunt’s garden? I don’t own the land. It was sold soon after her death at age 87, two years ago, to a nice family with two nice kids.
So, I won’t be able to tend it. I won’t be able to watch it grow. Or sit in the evening and smell its fragrance. Or anything. I repeat: what do I think I’m doing here?
Here’s my answer: I shall enter the garden invisibly. Like the philosopher John Wisdom in his essay Gods does; who simply posits the existence of a gardener and lets the curious try to find him. I will let the new owner try to find me. There will be no one that curious. The thyme will simply appear one morning, as if someone planted it, someone invisible. As I return each night I shall become harder to see.
We get up early in the hospital. The bright lights come on at 5:00 am. The lights are never off, only dimmed. Breakfast comes hours later, after the doctors have made their rounds. This morning I am waiting for the surgeon. The brain surgeon. He’s a tough man to pin down. He’s tough to figure out. Sometimes he’s the first one to arrive; sometimes he doesn’t come at all.
While I wait, I tend to my thyme clippings, examining all the roots as if they were flowers. They are white filament-like structures that specialize in getting nutrients from the moisture of the soil. Just the opposite of flowers. A hydrotrope, not heliotrope.
In my room I have a copy of the Philosophical Investigations, by Ludwig Wittgenstein—a second hand copy, handed down from Aunt Breath. I find I have an annotation right next to the opening paragraph, the one from Augustine’s Confessions, that reads ‘Don’t think, look!’ which is all right insofar as it goes, but it goes not far enough. The argument as I understand it runs like this.
Though Augustine has thought out his little picture what language is, he has not studied language. He has not looked at it. He was lead therefore to a dangerous picture of language, that nouns were the whole story, that language connected to the world via nouns. This is not the case.
And so ‘Don’t think, look.’ is a good observation, as I say, but the salient fact that the great Ludwig has chosen to start his book with a passage from the Confessions, has been sadly overlooked by my annotator aunt. He quotes from the book that invented such a thing—as a literary genera —as the ‘confession’. Is Wittgenstein writing a confession here?
Perhaps we all need to write a confession. I, however, am not writing a confession.
The surgeon does not appear this morning. This is okay by me. At one time I would have freaked, but no more. Today, I am simply of the opinion that he is stuck in traffic, or that his one son is playing a soccer match that ‘Dad’ just can’t miss. It is a Saturday after all, and surgeons have lives apart from their patients and their surgeries. They have soccer to watch, cocktail parties to attend, wives to attend to, barbecues to cook, gardens to care for, thyme to plant.
Here comes Doctor Kierkegaard. Funny, right? A hospital doctor and the philosopher with the same name. Herr Doctor Kierkegaard. In this case his first name is William. His fellow doctors call him ‘Billy’.
Well, nothing is perfect. Soren would understand.
And Billy Kierkegaard is an atheist, I suspect. He offers consolation in such strange ways, choking over phrases that roll off the tongue of most doctors—most people—quite easily, ‘He passed,’ being the most common.
I always want to say, ‘He died.’ This being the most non-metaphysical way of saying the patient is no longer alive. He passed. Into what? Into the void? Into the great unknown? As Shakespeare called it—in Hamlet—‘the undiscovered country’. He passed into heaven, right?
One time I quoted his great namesake to Doctor Kierkegaard.
Hope is a lovely maiden who slips through ones fingers; recollection is an old woman with whom one is never satisfied at the moment; repetition is the beloved wife of whom one never wearies, for one becomes weary of only what is new.
I had practiced this all night; I have a terrible memory.
‘Very pretty,’ said Doctor K. ‘You didn’t write that’.
Now I could have said, simply: ‘Soren Kierkegaard’ Or I could have said, not so simply: ‘Constantin Constantius,’ for that is the name on the title page. Instead I said, ‘Oh it is quite obscure. Who knows exactly?.’ Blah, blah, blah. I never really answered.
I preferred to keep something to myself. Keep it hidden.
Now what he could have said was, ‘Can you say that again?’ That is how in my mind the conversation went. We had a good laugh. Then: ‘But how can you get to repetition if you become so weary of what is new. Repetition surely depends on the new. It stands on it.’ Or at least stands alongside it. For everything repeats.
Oh reader, how I wish a conservation would go the way I imagined it! Just once. But, blah, blah, blah was enough, apparently.
We ended up talking about my surgery, which is fair enough; that was what I was in the hospital for, but would have been better discussed with the surgeon, who, as I recall, did not make morning rounds that day either.
Repetition is a curious metaphysical idea, one more suitable to the hospital than the chambers of philosophy .To Soren Kierkegaard it was worth writing a whole book about. To Billy Kierkegaard it was ‘very pretty’ and dismissed. He does not bear the responsibility of his name. But then, who does?
Name your first son Plato and he will almost always go into the insurance business. Name him Erasmus and he will not praise folly, for sure. But I digress.
I returned to my thyme, how I would plant it if I were the wind. For of course that is the natural explanation as to how the thyme got back into the garden after many years absence, in rows, yes in rows, that wind or some other ‘natural’ force ‘planted’ the thyme there. Of course the wind would not use seedlings. They are too heavy to blow into place. I, as the wind, would use seeds and rain water to germinate them.
But wait…is this how thyme actually grows? Or does it just lay dormant all winter, waiting for the spring to arrive?
Does it grow up through the dead stalks, pushing new life into dead (or almost dead) plants—plants that have not died, but have merely passed into a new state of existence?
I shall have to look up thyme, see how it propagates. In nature, as it were.
Dr. Kierkegaard, he’s back with the Chaplin, a Mr. Charles. Get it? Chaplin Charles, it’s like living with a library entry of a person. Sans comma, I suppose. I did not comment to the Chaplin about his name. He must have heard it all by now. His first name was William. ‘But call me Charley .’
Now what was I to do with this Charley? The puns propound. I really hadn’t asked to see him.
He repeats, ‘What can I do for you today, Mr. Welch?’
Now, my name is not Welch.
‘So’, I said. ‘You know, Charley…?’
Then came the sudden suspicion. Was I being made fun of here?
Mr. Welch, indeed.
Mr. Sour grapes.
So Charley, won’t you sit down and pray with me?
A long silence. Did he think I was making a death-bed conversion?
Will you or won’t you?
Dr. Kierkegaard saved an awkward moment by saying, ‘Tell him your quote, Jim.’
I do…though I don’t think my name is Jim either.
Don’t think. Jim Welch. James Welch.
‘That’s very pretty. I shall have to write it down. Who… ‘
‘Kierkegaard’ I said quickly. ‘Soren Kierkegaard.’
‘I see. Your theological better, Billy.’
I have nothing to do today. Except repeat what I did the day before. They would collect blood. They would check my temperature. They would monitor my brain. Bring a bed pan, a urinal, the newspaper. Lunch, dinner, juice, coffee, tea. Maybe change the sheets. Maybe get me a new gown. Collect more blood. Take my temperature. You see where I’m going here.
The one thing that was different was the book I was reading, the aforementioned Kierkegaard. Repetition. You do see where I am. I was also reading Wallace Stevens. A book called ‘Transport to Summer,’ which I needed right now. A transport to Summerville
Chaplin Charles and I talked.
Memories fade, they jumble together—sure, you think at twelve the winters pass like a sugar rush; sure, you think that broken rib healed itself overnight; sure, all bad things happen in the past so fast as to not have happened at all; but time is eternal and we are not, not anything if not finite—and it’s a fine night that leads to daylight, to the morning sun breaking across Central Park, its snowy mounds, its snowy pathways, its snowy ice… Perhaps I am writing something about time, its passing. It’s what we talked about.
When in doubt always turn to Emerson. Consider this quote at the beginning of his essay ‘Circles’.
The eye is the first circle. The horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in this cypher of the world St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose center is everywhere and his circumference nowhere.
My, my. ‘This cipher of a world’. I wonder is he meant ‘cipher’ to mean the verb, ‘to figure out’ or the noun ‘zero’.
When in doubt always turn to Shakespeare. Consider this passage spoken by John Falstaff.
O, thou has damnable iteration and art indeed able to corrupt a saint. Thou has done much harm upon me, Hal; God forgive thee for it. Before I knew thee, Hal, I knew nothing, and now am I, if a man should speak truly, little better than one of the wicked. I must give over this life and I will give it over. By the Lord, an I do not, I am a villain. I’ll be dammed for never a king’s son in Christendom.
Go ahead, cipher that.